THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe.

With the anti-Islam, far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders running just behind two-term right-wing Prime Minister Mark Rutte in polls, the Dutch vote could give an indication of whether the tide of populism that swept Britain toward the European Union exit door and Donald Trump into the White house has peaked.

The election in the Netherlands comes ahead of polls in France and Germany over the next half year, when right-wing nationalists will also be key players.

The final days of campaigning have been overshadowed by a diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments over the Netherlands’ refusal last weekend to let two Turkish ministers address rallies about a constitutional reform referendum next month that could give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. It showed Rutte as refusing to bow to pressure from outside, a stance that has widespread backing in the nation.

Rutte has driven through unpopular austerity measures over the past four years, but as the election approaches the Dutch economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has fallen fast. So the prime minister is urging voters to stick with him.

Rutte is casting the election as a two-horse race between his VVD party and the Party for Freedom led by Wilders. The choice, Rutte says, is simple: Chaos or continuity.


The prime minister says Wilders’ one-page manifesto – pledging to take the Netherlands out of the European Union, shut its borders to all immigrants from Muslim countries, shutter mosques and ban the Quran – would lead to chaos. Wilders fired back in a debate Monday that it would allow the Dutch “to become the boss in our own country again.”

Wilders also is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery in this nation of 17 million.

Even if Wilders wins the popular vote Wednesday, the Dutch system of proportional representation for the 150-seat lower house of Parliament will likely keep him out of government since all mainstream parties, with Rutte leading the way, have rejected working with Wilders in a coalition.

“Wilders will play no role in the formation of a government,” said Amsterdam Free University political analyst Andre Krouwel. “But Wilders plays a major role in the tone and content of the campaign and Wilders – even if he doesn’t win a single seat – has already won because the two biggest right-wing parties have taken over his policies.”

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