The Hague (AFP) – Dutch politicians hit the airwaves and the campaign trail Tuesday, battling to win over undecided voters in the final countdown to an election overshadowed by an acrimonious row with Turkey.
On the eve of Wednesday’s legislative polls, many of the 12.9 million eligible Dutch voters appear not to have made up their minds which of the record 28 parties in the running to choose.
A final debate between the eight top party leaders was slated for Tuesday night, with analysts saying there was still a lot to play for in the race to govern The Netherlands.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberal VVD are topping the latest polls, and poised to win by a whisker with a predicted 24-28 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
But he is fighting off a stiff challenge from the Freedom Party (PVV) of his rival far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, who may scoop up 20 to 24 seats.
In a one-page party manifesto, Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques and ban sales of the Koran. But he has revealed virtually no details of how he will put such plans into action.
Rutte and Wilders clashed Monday in their only televised head-to-head, laying out sharply different visions for the future.
The outgoing premier again hammered out that he would never work with his rival, a stand that could complicate moves to form a coalition government.
Bidding for a third term, Rutte pointed to his six years as premier overseeing growth, in one of the leading economies in the eurozone, and the need for stability for the country’s 17 million people.
But a diplomatic row with Turkey, which has suspended its 400-year old ties with The Netherlands and triggered incendiary accusations from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has gate-crashed the polls.
– ‘Fake solutions’ –
“You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders,” Wilders told Rutte, as tempers flared late Monday.
“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.”
Rutte said it was time to de-escalate the crisis with Ankara, 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, in a jab at the Dutch MP known for his love of Twitter.
While Wilders’s views have won growing support amid Europe’s refugee crisis, many of the pragmatic Dutch still find them unpalatable and most of the leading parties, including Rutte, have vowed not to work with him.
In the wake of last year’s Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential polls, the Dutch elections are being keenly watched to measure the strength of far-right and populist polls ahead of other votes in Europe later this year.
Amid such a fragmented political landscape and the possibility the next government will be comprised of an unwieldy four or five-party coalition, a lot of Dutch may well vote strategically.
The diplomatic crisis with Turkey, which flared at the weekend after the Dutch government barred Turkish ministers from speaking at a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam, appears to have boosted Rutte’s image.
– Volatile scene –
“I think what happened with Turkish incident reinforced his leadership,” Monika Sie Dhian Ho, director of the Clingendael Institute, told AFP.
She said as many as 60 percent of voters may still be wavering “so this is volatile, many things can happen.”
Amid the jostling, long-standing Dutch parties such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democracy Party (D66) have seen their fortunes rise as the clock ticks down to polling. They could both prove to be key players in future coalition building.
Young, charismatic left-wing leader, Jesse Klaver, 30, who heads GroenLinks was out early Tuesday campaigning in the university city of Leiden.
He has boosted his party in the polls, and could win between 16 to 18 seats, leaving him in a powerful kingmaker position.