Dutch PM closes gap with populist rival

AMSTERDAM • Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals are making up ground on populist front runner Geert Wilders in the polls, suggesting that voter support is crystallising in the final weeks of the election campaign in favour of keeping Mr Rutte in power.

Two polls released on Tuesday showed Mr Wilders' anti-Islam Freedom Party with a one-seat advantage or even with the Liberals. That is down from a lead of as many as 12 seats at the start of the year.

Ahead of the March 15 vote, the poll movement mirrors the last election in 2012, when major shifts became apparent only in the final stretch of the campaign. Then, Mr Rutte and Labour outperformed expectations and went on to form a coalition, while the Wilders challenge faded.

Another surge for the Liberals "is really a possible scenario", political science professor Andre Krouwel of Amsterdam's VU University said in a phone interview.

"Rutte managed to do this four years ago by mobilising centre-right voters that either considered voting for the Christian Democrats or the Freedom Party," he said.

The Netherlands is a bellwether for elections in Europe this year that will determine whether the populist surge that delivered the Brexit vote in Britain and helped Mr Donald Trump into the White House will spread to the European Union's core. Mr Wilders, like his fellow populist leader Marine Le Pen in France - which votes in presidential elections in April and May - is running on an anti-immigrant, anti-euro platform that blames the EU for taking away control from the nation state.

The Dutch election is being closely watched in neighbouring Germany, which goes to the polls in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Mr Peter Altmaier, a Dutch speaker from the far west of Germany, welcomed recent poll trends that suggest waning support for populist parties across Europe.

An EenVandaag poll published on Tuesday put the Freedom Party and the Liberals on 22 seats apiece, the first time the parties have tied in about 20 months.

A separate poll published by Kantar Public put the Freedom Party ahead with 28 seats, unchanged from a week ago, and 27 seats for the Liberals, up two.

"I don't think the Liberal Party will lose," Mr Rutte said at an event at Twente University. "This is not what I hope but what I expect."

No party ever wins a majority in the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament, making coalitions inevitable. A coalition needs to have the support of parties totalling at least 76 seats to ensure it can get its legislation through.

That further complicates Mr Wilders' path to the premiership as he lacks the allies needed to form a government. Almost all the established Dutch parties, including the Liberals and Labour, have ruled out governing with Mr Wilders.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Dutch PM closes gap with populist rival'. Print Edition | Subscribe