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Another Flying Dutchman moment?

| Updated: October 18, 2017 10:56:05

 'Some say the Dutchman refers to the captain of the ship, a man cursed to sail the seas forever and never make land. Some say the captain and his ship are doomed to forever try to round a stormy cape, never quite succeeding and always being beaten back b 'Some say the Dutchman refers to the captain of the ship, a man cursed to sail the seas forever and never make land. Some say the captain and his ship are doomed to forever try to round a stormy cape, never quite succeeding and always being beaten back b

Traced back to the late 18th Century, the "Flying Dutchman" sobriquet refers to a phantom ship, since it cannot land (George Barrington so observed in A Voyage to Botany Bay the 1795), an illusion (as in Thomas Moore's 1804 poetry), or piracy (Sir Walter Scott's Rokeby in 1812). It carries an ominous note, in the extreme, even spell disaster. That extremity led the European Footballer of the 20th Century, Johann Cruyff, to also be dubbed the "Flying Dutchman" for his "total" football during the 1970s, itself a fleeting on-field phenomenon.
It might as well be applied to Geert Wilders in the 2017 Dutch election. Though he could not extend the populist message from Great Britain and the United States, expressed in the Brexit vote and Donald J. Trump's victory the previous year, to the European continent, given the "Flying Dutchman" legend, it might be premature to write off that message entirely.
Anyone interested in that country or its election results should be more than familiar with the outcome details by now: his Freedom Party (PVV) lost to Mark Rutte's People Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), whose chances of forming a government depends upon the coalitions he  makes with other center-right parties (Christian Democratic Appeal and Christian Union), centrists (Democrats), the center-left (Labour Party), far-left (Socialists), and/or another popular populist party (the Greens). Campaigning to close mosques and ban the Quran, the far-right Freedom Party was too far out of mainstream views for the traditionally tolerant Dutch voter; yet, it gained five seats to become the country's second largest party, even as the front-runner VVD lost eight seats.
A number of issues demand attention: (a) the unspoken, between-the-lines messages; (b) reflections on the British and U.S. populist movements; and (c) the European take-away.
Dutch tolerance prevailed, but the victory margin was shoe-string thin: at stake is the unfettered growth of far-right sentiments, triggered no less by immigrants not only threatening the peace (Islamic fundamentalists), but also burdening the entitlements (new refugees at a time of stress in the pension system). Boasting one of the higher European growth-rates, the Netherlands still falls far behind the global pace-makers, nearer a standstill than rarely before, indicating past economic laurels can only go so far to speak for the present stagnation. When one adds incremental demographic challenges, the cause for worry becomes visible.
The Netherlands faces the same forces that swept through Great Britain and the United States over the past year: immigration, in both its welfare-taxing and threat-imposing forms. Reducing a dense explanatory package to the rubrics, what tipped Britain and the United States into wanting to leave Europe and the world, respectively, were simply that (a) the unemployed youth "defecting" from milder political persuasion-points, given the economic stagnation; (b) the elderly doing likewise, fearing exogenous pressure, rather than endogenous, would result in a welfare system collapse; and (c) the length, breadth, and duration of unassimilated migrants simply meaning a hitherto open-door immigration/refugee approach had retrospectively failed.
As across Britain and the United States, any alignments left-of-centre did poorly: the Labour Party in the former, the Democrats in the latter, and the Labour and Socialist parties in the Netherlands. Though Hillary J. Clinton received more votes than Trump, there were just too many Democrat defections from working-class and elderly constituencies, as in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and across the Southern Bible Belt, to push Clinton over in the electoral college. Rutte, or even his ideological counterparts, or anyone confronting populism, in France and Germany particularly, cannot ignore that lesson.
What the voters did, as the Dutch people have done historically, was to dampen extremism, in this case, both populism and Islamic fundamentalism: with France and Germany as the test cases against these forces in their own elections later this year, Dutch voters prevented the sudden populist outburst from thickening while giving the slow-and-long-moving Islamic extremists another chance, perhaps the last, to cool off.
Nonetheless, France and Germany face an even more forbidding environment. Marine Le Pen's National Front can draw upon more damaging personal incidents stemming from Islamic radicals to woo a larger voting proportion also "fed up"; and besides, in the absence of any viable challenger and an incumbent candidate, she has dominated France on the political front as no other in recent months. To that she can add an even worse French economic malaise in a way than the Dutch. Without a quick miracle, France stands at a pivotal crossroads.
Germany, on the other hand, has been the European economic mainstay and, until the Syrian refugee influx, also the political under the very likable, middle-of-the-road Angela Merkel chancellorship. Yet, no political (or economic) setting is ever permanent. Letting the Syrian refugees in against public grumbles was akin to letting the proverbial cat out of the bag: her character and personality might be what saves her in the election, though the warning she is likely to receive, is likely to be severe. Especially as the neo-Nazi revival in Germany just happens to be more fear-generating than any similar resurrection in any other part of the world (give or take Russia).
Economic growth in the rest of the world may independently push Atlantic-zone countries into other tight comparative circumstances, suggesting how it is not just endogenous forces but exogenous as well, influencing electoral mindsets. A legend in the Netherlands, the "Flying Dutchman" might become a symbol even beyond the Netherlands in this 21st Century.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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