THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch voters on Wednesday (March 20) head to provincial polls billed as a referendum on Prime Minister Mark Rutte's policies, after a campaign overshadowed by a possible terror attack on a tram.
Right-wing parties pushed the issue of integration back to the foreground as the country reeled from Monday's shooting in the city of Utrecht, for which a Turkish-born man has been arrested.
The Dutch ballot will be widely watched abroad as a bellwether for European Parliament elections in May, in which populist parties are expected to make broad gains.
Following the Utrecht attack, almost all political parties halted campaigning for the elections - which are for provincial bodies but determine the composition of the Dutch senate or upper house of Parliament.
Only the populist, anti-EU Forum for Democracy (FvD), led by Mr Thierry Baudet, continued with a rally in the Hague's seaside suburb of Scheveningen, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers.
The young and telegenic Baudet accused Mr Rutte's government of "naive" immigration policies and told the crowd that a "change of course is needed, otherwise this is going to happen more often in the Netherlands".
Polls show centre-right premier Rutte's four-party coalition - which currently carries a slender one-seat senate majority - is headed for major losses when the senate seats are decided.
The head of the Dutch socialist party has called the vote a "Rutte referendum", although Mr Rutte has said he will not step down if his coalition loses its majority and therefore needs help to drive through laws.
Mr Rutte has been in power for eight years, and after playing a key role in Brexit negotiations has widely been tipped to take up a top EU post in Brussels when the current set-up led by Mr Jean-Claude Juncker steps down later this year.
Dutch newspapers predicted that GroenLinks - the leftist ecological party led by Mr Jesse Klaver, a politician best known abroad for his strong resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - was set to make gains and become a potential senate kingmaker.
Meanwhile, Mr Baudet's party could threaten the anti-Islam Freedom Party of bleached blonde far-right leader Geert Wilders, which has traditionally attracted hardliners in the Netherlands.
But in a development that would be watched with alarm across Europe ahead of the European elections, the two hardline Dutch parties could together form the second biggest bloc in the senate.
The Utrecht attack and the arrest of the Turkish suspect proved the perfect fodder for both parties.
Mr Baudet's refusal to stop campaigning on Monday drew bitter condemnation from various MPs including Mr Rob Jetten, leader of the left-leaning progressive D66 party - a partner in Mr Rutte's coalition - who called the action "disgusting".
Mr Baudet, known for his controversial statements such as "women in general excel less in jobs and have less ambition", defended his actions, telling reporters that "many of the reactions seemed a bit put-on and don't seem genuine".
Often seen as relatively minor compared to general elections for the lower house of Parliament, which last took place in 2017, the Dutch provincial elections are still significant, observers said.
Voters can elect some 570 representatives to the country's 12 provinces, who will in turn decide on May 27 who sits in the 75-seat Dutch upper house.
Previously seen as something of a rubber-stamp body, the Dutch Senate in recent years has become a political battleground, as it has the final say whether to pass laws formulated by MPs in the lower house.
Polls say Mr Rutte's coalition partners - D66 and the Christian Democrats (CDA) - could drop as many as 10 seats.
Losing the majority will see the coalition lead by Mr Rutte's centre-right VVD party having to find other opposition partners to get laws passed, opening the door to potential kingmaker roles.
Turnout for provincial polls is traditionally low, standing at 56 per cent in 2011 and almost 48 per cent in 2015 as opposed to national elections, with a turnout of 82 per cent in 2017.