Tensions rise ahead of key Dutch election

Election campaign posters seen on a hoarding in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on March 11, 2017.
Election campaign posters seen on a hoarding in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on March 11, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Campaigning in The Netherlands was reaching fever pitch Sunday (March 12) ahead of an election in which the far-right is poised to make huge gains, with the poll marred by a diplomatic row with Turkey.

As politicians criss-crossed the country ahead of Wednesday's vote, tensions spiralled after Turkish ministers tried to defy a Dutch ban on holding pro-Turkish government rallies in the southern city of Rotterdam.

The stakes are high with the latest opinion polls showing Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals (VVD) may return on top as the largest party in the 150-seat parliament with a predicted 24 seats - but well down from 40 in the outgoing lower chamber.

Mr Rutte, who is bidding for a third term at the helm of the lowlands country of 17 million people, is fending off a strong challenge from far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV).

Buoyed for months by the polarising debate over immigration, Wilders jumped into the fray on Saturday to add his voice to the row with Ankara.

Tweeting out a picture of a woman in headscarf taking a selfie amid a sea of Turkish flags outside the consulate in Amsterdam, he wrote: "Decades of open borders, mass immigration, no integration, and double nationality and this is the result."

After weeks of flirting at the top of the polls, Mr Wilders has seen his ratings slip and may now come in second with 22 seats, according to the latest surveys.

The election is being closely watched as a bellwether of the rise of populist and far-right parties ahead of other national votes in Europe later this year.

Known for his incendiary anti-Islam rhetoric, the peroxide-blonde politician has vowed to close the country's borders to Muslim immigrants, ban the Koran and shut mosques.

And if he emerges as one of the largest parties in parliament he may be a difficult voice to ignore.

Wednesday's results will likely trigger some hard-bargaining to form a coalition to run the country, which is one of the largest in the eurozone and a founding pillar of the European Union.

Already Mr Rutte, in a bid to sap support from Mr Wilders, has called on immigrants to adapt to Dutch values or leave.

In the past week, hundreds packed into two mosques in separate events in Amsterdam and Rotterdam to voice concerns about growing discrimination.

"Without doubt, the dangers posed by Islamic State group and other radical Muslim groups have pushed people to look at each other differently," blogger Nourdeen Wildeman said late Friday in a debate in the country's largest mosque in Rotterdam.

Respected pollster Maurice de Hond also predicted that the long-established Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) is climbing back into favour and may share second position with Wilders, also garnering 22 parties.

With a total of 28 parties chasing some 12.9 million eligible voters, the results are likely to be fragmented and negotiations to form the next coalition government could take months.

Many parties have vowed not to work with Wilders, and these elections have also seen the remarkable rise of the left-wing ecologists GroenLinks and their charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver.

"My weapons are hope and optimism," the 30-year-old Klaver told AFP Saturday after campaigning in the southern university city of Eindhoven, where six party leaders gathered for a key debate.

"We have a realistic view for the future, these are our weapons... we don't have a normal campaign. We are building a movement that is stronger than any parties in Netherlands." Some 5,000 people flooded an Amsterdam hall last week in one of the country's biggest political rallies in years, drawn by Klaver's message.

Dutch political observers say the youthful Klaver, who is of Moroccan descent, is the antithesis of Wilders.

Several of the party leaders are already eyeing the coveted premiership, such as the leader of the progressive D66 party Alexander Pechthold.

"I think there should be an alternative to Mr Rutte, and it should be a progressive alternative," he told AFP Saturday on the sidelines of a debate in Eindhoven.