Are the ‘dominos’ as vulnerable as they seem?

It has become common in the English-speaking media to hear that Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are on course for victory in the forthcoming Dutch and French elections.  The idea that the individual nations of Europe are ready to rise up against the European Union is an oft-repeated trope from the far-right since Brexit, but are the Netherlands and France really on course for big political upheavals?

First, a word on opinion polls.  While it’s natural to view opinion polls with skepticism after their failure to predict Brexit and Trump in 2016, we should also remember that the polls in both cases showed very close and unpredictable races.  Final polls ahead of Brexit showed a 52%-48% victory for Remain; the final result reversed that.  In the United States, opinion polls correctly showed Hillary Clinton with a narrow lead in the popular vote.  They called the result wrong because they failed to pick up on her weakness in traditionally ‘blue’ mid-west states like Michigan, which cost her the election under the rules of the United States’ Electoral College.

While Brexit reminds us of the importance of ‘margin of error’ in polls, the American presidential result speaks to the importance of electoral system effects.  In both the Netherlands and France, electoral systems hinder the ability of an extremist party taking power.  Here’s why:

The Dutch Election, 15th March 2017

It is true that Geert Wilders’ PVV is on course to be the largest party in the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) following next month’s elections.  However, their most favourable polls give them 28 out of 150 seats.  On a good day, they might manage 30 seats, but that’s still 45 seats away from being able to form a government.

Other Dutch parties are reluctant to work with the PVV, partly because of their extremist positions, but also because they proved unreliable partners in the Rutte-I  government of 2010-2012.  Thus, the search for coalition partners to fill those 45 seats is likely to be fruitless.

The Netherlands’ Domino Potential: Low.  The most likely outcome in the forthcoming Dutch elections is a liberal/centre-right coalition.

The French Presidential Elections, 23rd April and 7th May 2017

Marine Le Pen’s Front National stands a good chance of being the biggest party when french votes are counted after the election on the 23rd April.  Current polls put her support at 25%, ahead of her nearest rivals, pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron (22%) and conservative François Fillon (20%).  The French race has so far been volatile – until recently François Fillon was the frontrunner – and with three months to go until polling day, there will be many twists and turns to come.  However, unless one candidate achieves the rare feat of winning the first-round vote outright,  the top two candidates will compete in a ‘run off’ vote on 7th May.

And in this second round, Marine Le Pen is likely to struggle.  According to polls, a direct choice between conservative Fillon and Nationalist Le Pen would result in a 60/40 split in favour of Fillon.  The centrist Macron polls slightly better than Fillon, with a run-off against Le Pen expected to split 65/35 in his favour.  A stable 60% of the population seems prepared to vote for ‘anybody but Le Pen’ in a Presidential run-off vote.  This coalition of resistance has defeated the Front National in previous presidential run-offs, and currently looks to be holding.  Significantly, this ceiling has been stable over a number of years; even terrorist attacks have not moved the needle in the direction of Le Pen.

France’s Domino Potential: Moderate to Low  With France’s two main ‘traditional’ parties in the doldrums, and the country still reeling from terror attacks, this election has the potential to be volatile.  However, long-term opinion polls suggest a 40% ceiling on Le Pen’s support.  Unless polls begin to show this ceiling breaking, then we should treat reports of Le Pen’s imminent ‘victory’ with some skepticism.

In conclusion, while it is symbolically significant if Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands and Le Pen’s FN in France win ‘biggest party’ in their respective countries, neither side currently looks able to draw on wide enough support to allow them to form a government.  The fact that Dutch and French parties are explicitly forced to build a coalition of support is a fundamental difference from the British and American electoral systems, which function according to majoritarian ‘winner takes all’ rules.