The Dutch are voting in an election seen as a key test for populism and far-right movement
Voting in the Netherlands comes after last year’s British vote to leave the European Union and the election of US President Donald Trump — two stunning successes for populists
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders cast Wednesday’s parliamentary elections as a litmus test for populism in Europe, only months ahead of crucial votes in France and Germany.
As the nation went to the voting stations on a bright spring morning, two-term premier Rutte’s liberal VVD party was leading in the latest polls, with the anti-Islam Party for Freedom of firebrand lawmaker Wilders a close second.
“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,” said Wilders who voted in a school in The Hague.
“I think that with what’s happening in America, perhaps in other European countries, that once again the normal people want to be patriotic in their own country that has its own sovereignty again.”
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between 28 parties in the running.
“This is a crucial election for The Netherlands,” Rutte said as he voted.
“This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point... to stop this... domino effect of the wrong sort of populism.”
Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country - 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 outgoing seats.
After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging onto second place with between 19 and 22 MPs - 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.
“I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world,” said Esther Zand, 52, who voted for Labour.
“He’s a rather irritating gentleman,” she added of Wilders.
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 would be natural coalition partners for Rutte.
“I am hoping for a strong centre” coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft.
“But I’m afraid it’s going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government,” he said.
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 in power.
Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gatecrashed the scene with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective and Nazi jibes 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.
Wilders though won support Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him “a patriot”.
Lines formed early at some polling stations, and first estimates showed turnout was slightly higher at this point in the day than in the last vote in 2012, when final participation was about 74 per cent.
Voting ends at 2000 GMT (4am Hong Kong time Thursday) with exit polls expected soon after. The official count was to be 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 that he voted VVD, not “as a vote against Wilders, but as a vote against the left”.
While traditional Labour appears to be sinking, 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.
Additional reporting by Associated Press