THE HAGUE: Dutch voters Wednesday rejected a key EU pact with Ukraine in a referendum seen as a barometer of anti-EU feeling, but low turnout cast doubts on whether the ballot was valid, exit polls showed.
After a day of sluggish voting, the first exit polls released by public broadcaster NOS left broad political uncertainty in a ballot being widely watched in Europe and Moscow.
Voters were being asked if they support the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine, which aims to foster better trade relations with the war-torn country and former Soviet satellite.
But organizers have admitted the non-binding ballot is essentially about wider anti-EU sentiment, and it could prove an important yardstick only months ahead of Britain’s “Brexit” referendum in June.
The exit polls, carried out by polling institute Ipsos, showed 64 percent of those who voted said “No” to the deal, with some 36 percent voting in favor.
But it was not immediately clear if turnout had reached the 30 percent of the 12.5 million eligible voters needed to be valid.
The exit polls initially put turnout at 29 percent, before updating it to 32 percent with a margin of error of 3 percent.
The civic-minded Dutch usually flock to the polls, with past turnouts hitting around 75 percent. But amid driving rain most people appeared to be staying away.
A Dutch “No” to the two-year-old treaty, which has already gone into force, could pose a headache for the European Union (EU).
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who cast his ballot at a Hague primary school, had urged citizens to vote in favor.
“We have to help Ukraine build up a judicial state and its democracy. To support its minorities like Jews and its gay community,” Rutte said. “Europe needs more stability at its edges.”
But many voters had remained puzzled about what the referendum was all about.
“I think it’s good to have a referendum, to be able to say what we think of Brussels. It’s important,” one voter, who identified himself only as Bert, 49, told Agence France-Presse.
It remains unclear what the results will mean for the Netherlands – which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
The vote is non-binding and the government has been non-committal, saying only it would study the results after the polls closed.
The “No” camp has highlighted concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and continuing separatist unrest in the east, among reasons to refuse closer ties with Kiev.
Ukraine, where a Moscow-backed president who rejected the cooperation deal was ousted in 2014, had actively campaigned for a “yes” vote.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced confidence in Dutch support, but his inclusion in the so-called Panama Papers tax evasion scandal has turned off some Dutch voters.
“I voted against because I don’t think the accord is a good thing for the Netherlands,” said Nik Tam, 65, adding there were already “too many” countries in the EU.
Anti-immigrant far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders tweeted to supporters: “Everyone vote today. And vote against!”
The Netherlands is now the only member in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned a “no” vote “could open the doors to a continental crisis”.
A “No” win could also lend a boost to the “Brexit” campaign.
“If the Dutch people vote no today, it will be a incentive for the British voters to say no,” Wilders said.