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Dutch elections test for politics in continental Europe
In just one week's time, voters in The Netherlands will vote for a new parliament. The polls are seen as a litmus test for European politics. The populist Freedom Party of Geert Wilders is running neck and neck with the ruling liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Identity and immigration have emerged as the main issues in this vote. Voters in France (elections 23 April) and Germany (24 September) are watching.
The Netherlands is the first of three European Union (EU) countries to hold elections this year, countries where far-right parties are rising in popularity.
France and Germany will go to the polls in April and September respectively, and voters there are anxious to see the result of the upcoming election in Holland. One week before the elections, the outcome is hard to predict: “The latest polls indicate that the largest party will be relatively small,” says Kees Aarts, a political science professor with the University of Groningen, “so there will be a large number of small to medium sized parties."
"The ruling VVD will likely end up as the largest of all the parties, followed by Geert Wilders' PVV,” Aarts points out. According to him, polls in recent Dutch elections have shown that there can be “considerable movement, even in the last week or days.”
“Apart from that, Geert Wilders has been rather invisible during the campaign. And I think in the end that has worked against him.”
Wilders explained that he had been invisible because a member of his security team had leaked information on his whereabouts to a Moroccan criminal group. As a result he decided to cancel all public appearances.
This may have been a publicity stunt, and last week he started up again. On Tuesday, he went to the Turkish embassy in The Hague to protest against the upcoming visit of the Turkish foreign minister. “These are exactly the type of issues that Wilders would like to have in the news prominently,” says Aarts.
“This will again bring to the centre of attention the problems at present with Turkey and the Turkish government, as well as the problems that the Dutch have with the way in which the Foreign Minister, or other Turkish politicians, consider citizens of The Netherlands who have a dual nationality to also be Turkish citizens.”
But the stunt may be too little, too late. “Wilders has been around for more than 10 years in his independent role in Dutch politics,” says Aarts.
“If he misses this moment to become the largest party, this will also be a signal to France and Germany that not all is lost for the traditional parties. So I think we all look to this election because it is, after Brexit and the US presidential election, the first test on European continental grounds to see how widespread populism actually is at the moment.”
Dutch politics are also making headlines in Germany, which goes to the polls in September. Holland is an important trading partner, and the political system is in some ways quite similar.
Moreover, Wilders's meeting with the local extreme right wing Alternative Fuer Deutschland has attracted attention.
But observers say that the German far right is not very strong, as it is outdone by the Socialists and the Christian centre. “The Netherlands is crucial now,” says Bernd Hüttermann, the general secretary of the European Movement Germany.
“Let's say Wilders's party might get the strongest support of all parties, but then people can also see that he will not be able to form a government," Hütterman says.
In Holland the biggest party wins, but other parties have not expressed a willingness to form a government with Wilders. If other parties form a majority, they can still create a government "that is still constructive and pro-European," according to Hütterman.
“And that might encourage other countries to see hatred as a big immaturity of constructive democrats who want to get further with politics rather than just stopping everything. But the fear is more on France."
After the Netherlands, France is up next, with the first round of presidential elections on 23 April. Far-right contende, Marine le Pen is projected to advance to the second round in most polls.
A right-wing victory for the Freedom Party in the Netherlands may be a boost to Le Pen, but if he loses, voters in France will surely take notice.