Dutch voters head to the polls on Wednesday after Mark Rutte, prime minister, and rivals clashed over refugees, immigration and the economy in the last televised debate following an extraordinarily tight race.
After a campaign that was interrupted by a diplomatic spat with Turkey, by fears of foreign interference and by a row over the security of populist Geert Wilders, the vote is set to be extremely close.
Mr Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) enjoys a slim lead in most polls, although only by 2 or 3 percentage points, leading most pollsters to caution that the election is too close to call. “I do not dare make big bets on the winner,” Tom Louwerse, a Dutch pollster told broadcaster NOS.
In total, six parties are forecast to get more than 10 per cent of the vote but none are set to receive more than 20 per cent, according to most polls, which is likely to mean months of complex negotiations over forming a Netherlands government.
Bunched behind the VVD are a range of parties -—from the left to the far right — that are battling for second place — or even a surprise first place. Included among them are Mr Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has run on a ticket that includes banning the Koran and closing down mosques in the Netherlands.
Leaders from the main parties went head-to-head in The Hague on Tuesday. During a fiery clash over integration and immigration, Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher dismissed Mr Wilders as “10,000 angry tweets and no solutions”. In response, Mr Wilders criticised Mr Asscher’s record as part of a grand coalition with the VVD, stating: “You let half the world in.”
Elsewhere, Jesse Klaver — leader of the insurgent GreenLeft party, which is set for its best ever performance — attacked Mr Rutte’s handling of the refugee crisis. After the Dutch prime minister hailed the EU-Turkey deal for stemming the flow of people into Europe, Mr Klaver said that the agreement was “not a solution, but only an excuse to look the other way”.
Although Mr Wilders’ PVV has lost support in the final few weeks of campaigning, the party is still forecast to win 20 seats out of 150, according to a final poll by Ipsos. But since all other major parties have refused to form a coalition with the far right group, it is extremely unlikely that Mr Wilders — who lives under 24-hour security — will end up in government.
The same poll put Mr Rutte’s VVD on 27 seats. Although this would represent a 30 per cent drop from the party’s 2012 showing, it will be enough to remain the largest party. As Dutch newspaper Volkskrant put it: “The prime minister is now expecting a defeat which can be celebrated as a victory.” The centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal are on 23 seats following a late surge, while centrist liberal party D66 and GreenLeft are just behind on 18 and 15, respectively.
The close race means that a four or five-party coalition will be necessary, making long drawn out coalition negotiations almost inevitable.
The amount of uncertainty in the run-up to the vote was unprecedented, even in a Dutch system whose extreme form of proportional representation allows parties to rise and fall very quickly. At the start of the month, just over half of Dutch voters said they were not certain which party to vote for.
There was extra confusion after a denial of service attack took down the StemWijzer website, where voters can answer 30 questions before being recommended one of the dozens of parties on the ballot that best fit their views. Dutch authorities had previously limited the use of software to count votes over hacking fears.
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