Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte clashed with his main rival anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders on Monday (13 March), as they laid out starkly opposing visions of their country’s future in an election campaign now consumed by a diplomatic row with Turkey.
Two days before Wednesday’s crucial general election (15 March), The Netherlands is mired in a war of words with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has provided fodder for Wilders and his uncompromising anti-immigration stance.
“You are being taken hostage by Erdoğan. Close the Dutch borders,” Wilders told Rutte, as tempers flared in the 30-minute head-to-head televised debate.
“That’s a totally fake solution,” Rutte shot back, “you want Nexit, you want The Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost … don’t do it.”
Wilders, who says he is on a mission against the “Islamisation” of the country, has promised to shut Dutch borders to Muslim immigrants, close mosques and ban sales of the Koran.
He also wants to follow the British and pull the country out of the European Union which it helped found.
Polls suggest Wednesday’s results could be close, with Rutte’s Liberal VVD returning as the largest party in the 150-seat parliament by a whisker.
The elections are being closely watched as a signal of the possible rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe, with key elections also planned this year in France and Germany.
“I want The Netherlands to be the first country which stops this trend of the wrong sort of populism,” Rutte told reporters, just hours before the debate.
Monday’s debate, plus Tuesday’s vote-eve round-table with eight political party leaders (14 March), could yet sway the poll, one analyst told AFP, estimating some 60% of Dutch voters remain undecided.
Wilders has delighted in the chaos which erupted over the weekend when riot police moved in to disperse hundreds of protesters waving Turkish flags in Rotterdam, angered by a Dutch government ban on their ministers.
Rutte appealed for calm, but he has rejected Turkey’s calls to apologise for expelling one of its ministers who tried to attend the pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.
In one tense exchange, Rutte said it was time to de-escalate the crisis, but Wilders retorted: “We must answer back. We must expel the Turkish ambassador and his staff.”
“There’s the difference between tweeting from the sofa and running a country. If you are in charge of a country you need to take sensible measures,” Rutte replied, to loud applause, in a jab at the Dutch MP known for his love of Twitter.
Tough coalition talks
The VVD is predicted to return as the largest party in the 150-seat parliament with between 23 to 27 seats, according to the latest aggregated polls.
That is well down from the 40 VVD MPs in the outgoing lower chamber, however, and would leave Rutte scrambling to cobble together a viable coalition which may have to include four or five parties to reach the 76-seat majority.
After weeks of flirting at the top of the polls, Wilders has seen his ratings slip and may now come second with between 19 and 23 seats, polls suggest. But that would still leave him a difficult voice to ignore.
Rutte repeated his vow never to work with Wilders again, accusing him of causing problems for the country after the peroxide-haired MP triggered the collapse of an earlier coalition in 2012.
Telling Wilders he had become “radicalised” and was making “extreme statements” about Moroccan-Dutch citizens, Rutte insisted: “I will not cooperate with such a party. No, never, no.”
But Wilders retorted that he was standing up against “the liars and the legislators” and urged Dutch voters “if you want to take the Netherlands back for ourselves, then chase this man away and put me in the prime minister’s office.”
There are 28 parties seeking to woo the 12.9 million eligible voters, and observers have warned that forming a coalition will likely take months and demand tough compromises.
Wilders’ “ideology might be negative, it’s anti-Muslims, it’s anti-EU, it’s anti-immigration, it’s anti-refugees. But it is a clear ideology that addresses concerns of a substantial group of the Dutch. So it is there to stay,” Monika Sie Dhian Ho, director of the Clingendael Institute, told AFP.