|Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the PVV party votes in the general election in The Hague|
The centre-right VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 50, is vying with the PVV (Party for Freedom) of anti-Islam and anti-EU firebrand Geert Wilders, 53, to form the biggest party in parliament.
As many as 13 million voters began casting ballots at polling stations across the country that will close at 9:00pm A charged campaign, plus clear skies and sunshine meant high turnout was expected.
With as many as four out of 10 voters undecided a day before voting and a tight margin of just 4 per cent between leading candidates, the outcome was unpredictable.
Wilders, who has vowed to “de-Islamicise” the Netherlands, has virtually no chance of forming a government given that all the leading parties have ruled out working with him, but a PVV win would still send shockwaves across Europe.
The vote is the first gauge this year of anti-establishment sentiment in the European Union and the bloc’s chances of survival after the surprise victory of EU-sceptic Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s 2016 vote to exit the union.
“What I call the patriotic parties are gaining some momentum… but 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 take place,” Wilders said after voting at a school in The Hague.
Wilders’ appeal had won over Wendy de Graaf, who dropped her children off at the same school. “I hope he can make a change to make the Netherlands better.. I don’t agree with everything he says… but I feel that immigration is a problem,” she said.
France chooses its next president in May, with far-right Marine Le Pen set to make the second-round run-off, while in September right-wing eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany, which has attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, will probably win its first lower house seats.
Rutte, who has called the Dutch vote a quarter-final before a French semi-final and German final said a Wilders victory would be felt well beyond the Netherlands.
“I think the rest of the world will then see after Brexit, after the American elections again the wrong sort of populism has won the day,” he said.
Late opinion polls indicated a three percentage point lead for his party over Wilders’, with a slight boost from a rupture of diplomatic relations with Ankara after the Dutch banned Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of overseas Turks.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Dutch of behaving like Nazis.
“I think Rutte did well this weekend with the Turkey row,” said Dave Cho, a 42-year-old supply manager and long-time VVD supporter.
|Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD party waves after voting in the general election in The Hague|
“Although the conflict with Turkey helped the biggest parties, the final polls show that whichever finishes first is likely to do so with a record low percentage of the total vote,” said pollster Maurice de Hond.
Experts predict a coalition-building process that will take many months once the final tally is known.
Rutte’s last government was a two-party coalition with the Labour Party, but with no party polling above 17 per cent, at least four will be needed to secure a majority in parliament. It would be the first such multi-party alliance since three in the 1970s. Two of those fell apart within 12 months.
In a final debate Tuesday night, Wilders clashed with Lodewijk Asscher, whose Labour party stands to lose two-thirds of its seats in its worst defeat ever on current polling.
Asscher defended the rights of law-abiding Muslims to not be treated as second-class citizens or insulted. Wilders shot back: “The Netherlands is not for everyone. The Netherlands is for the Dutch.”
Front-runner Rutte, who is hoping Dutch economic recovery will help him carry the election, has been insistent on one thing – that he will neither accept the PVV as a coalition partner nor rely on Wilders to support a minority government, as was the case in 2010-2012.
“Not, never, not,” Rutte told Wilders.