AMSTERDAM • Dutch voters headed to the polls yesterday in a general election that will provide the first gauge of the spread of populism into the core of Europe.
The contest pits Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte against his anti-Islam challenger, Mr Geert Wilders, who led for much of the campaign on a platform of pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union and halting immigration.
But polls in the past two weeks have suggested that Mr Wilders' attempt to ride the wave of nationalist sentiment which prompted Britain's Brexit vote and catapulted Mr Donald Trump to the White House may have lost momentum.
Yesterday's election, in one of the EU's six founding member states, is the biggest test of the strength and resilience of the populist surge this year. The outcome is viewed as a barometer for votes later this year in France and Germany, the two biggest economies in the euro zone.
France chooses its next president in May, with the far-right Marine Le Pen set to make it to the second-round run-off, while in September, the right-wing Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany, which has attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door refugee policy, will probably win its first Lower House seats.
"We see right-wing extremist parties in the Netherlands, in France, in Italy all arguing they want to have a referendum on EU membership," Professor Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, told Bloomberg Television.
"If you have a call for that referendum, it's no longer just a referendum on EU membership but a referendum on the euro. And then we're very quickly back to where we were in the summer of 2012" when the euro area faced collapse at the height of the Greek crisis, he noted.
About 12.9 million people in the Netherlands are eligible to cast their ballot, with voting booths open until 9pm local time (4am today, Singapore time), when an exit poll is to be released. Early data showed that the turnout at 10.30am Amsterdam time was 15 per cent, 2 percentage points higher than in the last election in 2012.
A high turnout early on is more likely to be good news for opponents of Mr Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV), according to political science professor Sarah de Lange, of the University of Amsterdam.
PVV supporters "had already decided which way to vote, while for the other parties, 40 per cent were still in doubt", she said. "This means the other parties might benefit most."
Mr Rutte has called on Dutch voters to use the election to draw a line in the sand over the spread of populism. Mr Wilders, who has said that he would bar immigrants to the Netherlands from Muslim countries, says that he has already won the election because "everyone is moving towards us" on policy.
Mr Wilders has won over Ms Wendy de Graaf, who dropped her children off at a school which was being used as a polling station.
"I hope he can make a change to make the Netherlands better. I don't agree with everything he says... but I feel that immigration is a problem," she said.