voting begins

'The Dutch Trump' and PM Rutte go head-to-head in Netherlands' elections

There is an intense media frenzy around the Dutch elections this year because of the anti-Islam sentiment linked with Brexit and the US election last year.

Dutch Far-Right PPV Candidate Geert Wilders Election Campaign Anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders on his campaign trail for the Dutch parliamentary elections, amid tight security and intense media interest. Utrecht Robin / ABACAPRESS.COM Utrecht Robin / ABACAPRESS.COM / ABACAPRESS.COM

MILLIONS OF DUTCH voters were going to the polls today in an election that has been overshadowed by a blazing diplomatic row with Turkey, with all eyes on the fate of far-right MP Geert Wilders.

Following last year’s shock Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential polls, the Dutch general elections are seen as a litmus test of the strength of far-right and populist parties ahead of other ballots in Europe this year.

Amid the tussle between outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte and his anti-Islam rival Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between the 28 parties in the running.

Netherlands Election Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte answers questions after the closing debate at parliament last night. Peter Dejong Peter Dejong

Most polling stations opened at 6.30am, although a few such as at Eindhoven airport were allowed to open earlier.

Polling booths set up in schools, town halls as well as shops, bowling alleys and swimming pools will close at 8pm with exit polls expected shortly after.

“When people look for leadership, they look to me,” Rutte told a final debate late last night.

The leader of the Liberal VVD party, he is bidding for a third term as premier of the country of 17 million people – one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.

Wilders – the ‘Dutch Trump’

Netherlands Election Wilders Muhammed Muheisen / PA Images Muhammed Muheisen / PA Images / PA Images

Voters and pundits have dubbed Wilders “the Dutch Trump”, with his dyed blonde, bouffant hair, love of Twitter and incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric.

But despite a superficial resemblance there are sharp differences, Wilders is still partly an enigma even though he has long been a thorn in the side of the political establishment.

Final polls appeared to show Rutte pulling away from Wilders, crediting the VVD with coming top with 24 to 28 seats – well down on its 40 seats in the outgoing parliament.

Wilders was seen as slipping, barely clinging on to second place with between 19 and 22 MPs – well up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.

“I am hoping for a strong centre” coalition with Rutte joining forces with other traditional parties, said Alexander van der Hooft.

He was the first person to cast his ballot at the Wolters School in a leafy suburb in The Hague, where Rutte was expected to vote later.

“But I’m afraid it’s going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government,” he told AFP.

But polls still predict the PVV will emerge from the elections as one of the largest parties in parliament.

If so, Wilders can point to the best showing yet for the party he founded in 2006 after splitting with the right-wing Liberal VVD – the ruling partner in the outgoing coalition.

Dutch Far-Right PPV Candidate Geert Wilders Election Campaign Wilders has repeatedly said he believes he is on a mission to halt "the Islamisation" of the West. Utrecht Robin / ABACAPRESS.COM Utrecht Robin / ABACAPRESS.COM / ABACAPRESS.COM

Rutte and Turkey

Seeking to mark his differences with the fiery, Twitter-loving Wilders, Rutte has been highlighting the country’s economic growth and stability during his six years at the helm.

Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gatecrashed the scene with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.

Rutte’s firm handling of the crisis – barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another – appears to have boosted his image here.

Netherlands Election People began casting their ballots from 6.30am today. Peter Dejong Peter Dejong

Snapping at the heels of Wilders are long-standing Dutch parties such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs, the polls said.

Both the CDA and D66 would be natural coalition partners for Rutte, who like most Dutch parties, has refused to work with Wilders, turned off by his incendiary rhetoric.

“Netherlands does not belong to all. Do you hear me? The Netherlands belongs to the Dutch,” Wilders said in last night’s debate.

Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques and ban sales of the Koran. He also wants to pull the country out of the EU in a so-called Nexit.

Netherlands Election A poster showing Jesse Klaver, from the GroenLinks party is held by a supporter outside Amsterdam's Central Station, Netherlands. Muhammed Muheisen / PA Images Muhammed Muheisen / PA Images / PA Images

Angry tweets

The Dutch pride themselves on their consensus politics, and reportedly it takes an average of three months to cobble together a coalition. Observers predict this time round however, four or even five parties may be needed to reach the 76-seat majority.

The leader of the Labour Party, Rutte’s coalition partner in the outgoing government, hit out at Wilders in some of the fiercest exchanges late last night.

“You’ve been a member of parliament for 20 years. You’ve sent thousands of angry tweets, but you have provided zero solutions. You weaken and divide The Netherlands,” said Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher.

While traditional Labour appears to be sinking this year, the left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver are enjoying a huge boost.

His party may win 16 to 18 seats, which could place him in a powerful kingmaker role.

Read: ‘Broken character’ … ‘repugnant falsehood’: Netherlands-Turkey diplomatic crisis deepens

Explainer: Is the Netherlands about to take a big jump to the far-right?

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