Dutch voters go to the polls next week in pivotal elections with the Liberal party, at the helm of the ruling coalition, seeking to fend off a strong challenge from the far-right.
In what could be one of the country’s closest elections in years, the anti-Islam, pugnacious and combative Dutch MP Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) may emerge as the largest group in the next parliament.
That could deal a blow to Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberal VVD party, as the pragmatic politician seeks a third term at the helm of one of Europe’s largest economies and a founding pillar of the European Union.
Ahead of other elections notably in France and Germany where the rise of far-right and populist parties is being keenly watched, it could also be the best showing for Wilders since he split from Rutte’s party to form his PVV in 2006.
Complicating the political landscape, 28 parties on will be vying for places in the 150-seat parliament on 15 March, splintering the ballots of some 12.9 million eligible voters.
“I think the elections are going to turn into a very divided parliament. The small parties are going to win a lot of seats,” said Leiden University analyst Geerten Waling. “So I think it’s going to be much tougher to form a coalition government, much tougher than before.”
Wilders has been leading the opinion polls for months, boosted by the polarising debate over Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. He was also helped by a high-profile court case in which he was convicted of discrimination for insulting Dutch citizens of Moroccan origin.
“I am confident we will all have excellent results,” Wilders said at the weekend, referring also to France’s far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.
“Even if that will not be the case, the genie will not go back into the bottle… certainly things will change in Europe,” he insisted.
But as the vote approaches, he has slipped back to second place behind Rutte’s VVD. Aggregated polls at the weekend suggested Rutte could emerge with 23-27 seats, just ahead of the PVV on 22-26 seats.
Most leading Dutch parties have vowed to shun Wilders, wary of his pledges to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, ban sales of the Koran and take the country out of the EU.
Rutte has sought to stand above the fray, highlighting his six years as premier to argue that he alone presents the best alternative to Wilders.
“We are living in very unstable and insecure times. My main task as prime minister is to keep this country safe and stable,” Rutte told AFP on the campaign trail last month.
But in a bid to woo Wilders’s supporters, he has also argued the Netherlands must defend its values, telling immigrants earlier this year they must adopt Dutch norms “or leave.”
If Wilders “emerges with the biggest party, he will get the right to try to form a coalition”, said Dutch political expert and former ambassador to the United States, Boudewijn van Eenennaam.
But if the other parties stand by their pre-election vows, he would likely fail and the task would be turned over to the runner-up. The ensuing negotiations could take months, as smaller parties bargain to
boost their pet policies or win a coveted cabinet post in return for their support.
Among them is a new kid on the block, the charismatic Jesse Klaver, 30, who heads the Green left party, GroenLinks.
Dubbed the “Justin Trudeau” of Dutch politics, he has breathed new life into the party, enabling it to challenge long-established groups such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), once a powerful political force.
These elections have also been marked by the stunning fall of the traditional left. Rutte’s current coalition partner, the Labour party (PvdA), has seen support wither, slipping from 35 MPs currently to a predicted 11-13 seats.
Analysts say next Wednesday’s ballot may lead to an unwieldy five-party government.
There is even talk of a possible minority government – rare but not unprecedented.
“I think it’s actually quite good that so many parties are competing. It’s good for democracy, it’s good for debate, and even a divided parliament after the elections will not turn into complete chaos,” said Waling.