THE HAGUE: Millions of Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in an election overshadowed by a blazing diplomatic row with Turkey, with all eyes on the fate of far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders.
Following last year’s shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being closely watched to gauge support for populism in Europe ahead of other elections this year.
Wilders voted in a primary school in The Hague, mobbed by television cameras, just after final opinion polls showed he was slipping behind the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
“Whatever the outcome of the election today the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay,” Wilders said, dismissing media comparisons with Trump.
“I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world,” said Esther Zand, 52, who voted in the same school for Labor and against Wilders.
“He’s a rather irritating gentleman,” she added.
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between the 28 parties in the running.
“When people look for leadership, they look to me,” Rutte told the final debate Tuesday watched by a record 3.3 million people according to broadcaster NOS.
Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country of 17 million people—one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.
Final polls appeared to show Rutte consolidating a lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats—well down on its 40 seats in the outgoing parliament.
After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging on to second place with between 19 and 22 MPs—well up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.
Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU.
Snapping at his heels are long-standing parties the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs. Both parties would be natural coalition partners for Rutte.
“I am hoping for a strong center” coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft, voting in a school where Rutte was expected later.
“But I’m afraid it’s going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Seeking to highlight his differences with the fiery, Twitter-loving Wilders, Rutte has been highlighting the country’s economic growth and stability during his six years at the helm.
Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gate crashed the scene with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.Rutte’s handling of the crisis— barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another— appears to have boosted his image here, and contrasted with Wilders’ rage at protesters brandishing Turkish flags.
“Netherlands does not belong to all. Do you hear me? The Netherlands belongs to the Dutch,” Wilders said in Tuesday’s debate.
He won a boost Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him “a patriot”.
‘Breath of fresh air’
Most polling stations opened at 0630 GMT and from the early hours lines began to swell. Turnout in Dutch elections is usually high—in the last vote in 2012 it was 74 percent.
Polling booths close at 2000 GMT with exit polls expected shortly after. Official results may take longer, as the count is being done by hand following fears of possible hacking.
It reportedly takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority.
“I voted strategically,” said Roger Overdevest, 47, adding he believed other Dutch would too. He voted VVD, not “as a vote against Wilders, but as a vote against the left.”
“I don’t want to see any kind of left coalition brought in.”
While traditional Labor appears to be sinking this year, the ecologist left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver could win 16 to 18 seats.
“I hope GroenLinks will win. Jesse Klaver is a breath of fresh air. To me the current cabinet has not done enough for the environment,” said lawyer Marloes van Heugten. AFP