EINDHOVEN • Dutch political leaders hit the campaign trail over the weekend, criss-crossing the country to woo voters ahead of this week's elections, now overshadowed by a bitter row with Turkey.
On the final weekend before Wednesday's elections, the leaders of six of the country's top political parties were converging on the southern city of Eindhoven for a key televised debate.
Notable by his absence was far-right MP Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is within a whisker of topping the polls even though he has largely eschewed traditional campaign events.
The Dutch polls are being closely watched as a key litmus test of the rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe, with elections due in other countries later in the year.
But less than a week before the vote, the Netherlands found itself embroiled in a bitter row with Turkey after expelling a minister from that country and preventing Ankara's top diplomat from landing ahead of planned rallies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was banned from attending a rally in Rotterdam on Saturday to drum up support for Ankara's high-stakes referendum next month on boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.
Meanwhile, Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was expelled from the Netherlands, after being prevented from addressing a rally in Rotterdam.
Dutch police used dogs and water cannon early yesterday to disperse hundreds of protesters outside the consulate in Rotterdam, who were waving Turkish flags and throwing bottles and stones. Several demonstrators were beaten by police with batons, a witness said. Officers carried out charges on horseback.
Mr Erdogan hit back angrily, saying the decision to refuse to allow Mr Cavusoglu's plane to land showed that the Dutch were "the vestiges of the Nazis, they are fascists". Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte denounced Mr Erdogan's comments as "crazy" and "way out of line".
As the row raged, Turkish foreign ministry sources said the Dutch embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul had both been sealed off for "security reasons".
The Turkish foreign ministry said the Dutch charge d'affaires in Ankara had been summoned and told Turkey did not want the Dutch ambassador, who was currently away on holiday, to return "for a while".
Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen yesterday proposed postponing a planned visit by Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yilderim this month because of the diplomatic row between Turkey and the Netherlands. "With the current Turkish attacks on Holland, the meeting cannot be seen separated from that. I have, therefore, proposed to my Turkish colleague that the meeting be postponed," Mr Rasmussen said.
France urged Turkey and European Union member states to calm tensions and said there had been no reason to prohibit Mr Cavusoglu from addressing a public meeting in eastern France yesterday.
Dubbed the "debate of the South", Saturday's televised event in the Netherlands was to hear from party leaders how they would tackle issues such as crime, the economy, the greying population and drugs.
Mr Rutte's Liberal VVD, the ruling partner in the outgoing coalition, is narrowly ahead and expected to win 24 seats on Wednesday, according to the latest polls.
Mr Wilders and his PVV and the long-established Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party are predicted to take 22 each. The polls also suggest that the left-wing ecologist GroenLinks could complete a stunning rise by winning 20 seats.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS