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Facing poll slide, Wilders resumes campaign for Dutch election

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM Hit by sliding poll numbers, Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders said he would resume his campaign this weekend after revelations of leaks from his police protection prompted him to halt all public appearances ahead this month’s election.

Wednesday’s announcement follows the Dutch government’s decision to give a different squad the task of protecting the outspoken opponent of Islam, who has lived under 24-hour protection since 2006 after a fellow critic was killed.

“Voters want to see us,” Wilders said in a statement, promising a first appearance at the Telegraaf newspaper in Amsterdam on Sunday, without giving more precise details of his schedule ahead of the March 15 vote.

The decision comes after Wilders’ party, which wants to shut mosques and ban the Koran, slipped to second place in the Peilingwijzer poll of polls for the first time since November, with 15.7 percent. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD party was on 16.3 percent.

Wilders’s Party for Freedom has seen its poll lead narrow since late January, with many analysts suggesting the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president has turned Dutch voters against populist rhetoric on migration.

He did not mention the polling in his statement.

Wilders cancelled all street appearances and most media appearances after an officer on his protection squad was suspended on suspicion of leaking information to Moroccan criminal gangs. He was not safe with “corrupt Muslim police defenders”, he said.

Last month, he also cancelled a promised appearance at a party leaders’ debate on RTL television after the broadcaster ran an interview with his brother, a Wilders critic. Wilders criticised the decision as an invasion of his private life.

The government has repeatedly promised to ensure Wilders can campaign safely despite the militant threat he faces. A separate squad, which guards Dutch embassies in unstable countries, has now assumed the task of ensuring his safety.

The election is the first of three in European Union founder members this year, with anti-EU and anti-immigration parties in France and Germany also hoping concerns over security and immigration will help them to electoral gains that could reshape the continent and its politics.

Before the dip in the polls, other parties ruled out any coalition with Wilders, which would likely to keep him out of government, especially since he was convicted in December of inciting discrimination.

Rutte, who once led a minority government that excluded Wilders but relied on his support, says he will never work with him again.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams)