Dutch Frontrunner Wilders Losing Steam as Election Nears

  • Wilders’s Freedom Party and Rutte’s Liberals tie in one poll
  • Netherlands to vote in general elections on March 15

Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party (VVD), speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Wormerveer, Netherlands, on Saturday, Feb. 25.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals are making up ground on populist frontrunner Geert Wilders in the polls, suggesting that voter support is crystallizing in the final weeks of the campaign in favor of keeping Rutte in power.

Two polls released on Tuesday showed the Freedom Party with a one-seat advantage or even with the Liberals. That’s down from a lead of as many as 12 seats at the start of the year. A poll aggregator released Wednesday showed the Liberals narrowly ahead for the first time since November.

Wilders, left, and Rutte

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Two weeks to the day before the March 15 vote, the poll movement -- in so far as any polls can be taken seriously -- mirrors the last election in 2012, when major shifts only became apparent in the final stretch of the campaign. In the event, Rutte and Labor outperformed expectations and went on to form a coalition, while the Wilders challenge faded.

For a table of the latest Dutch polling intentions, including averages, click here

Another surge for the Liberals “is really a possible scenario,” Andre Krouwel, a professor of political science at Amsterdam’s VU University, said in a phone interview. “Rutte managed to do this four years ago by mobilizing center-right voters that either considered voting for the Christian Democrats or the Freedom Party.”

The Netherlands is a bellwether for elections in Europe this year that will determine whether the populist surge that delivered the Brexit vote in the U.K. and helped Donald Trump into the White House will spread to the European Union’s core. Wilders, like his fellow populist leader Marine Le Pen in France -- which votes in presidential elections in April and May -- is running on an anti-immigrant, anti-euro platform that blames the EU for taking away control from the nation state.

German Attention

The Dutch election is being closely watched in neighboring Germany, which goes to the polls in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, a Dutch speaker from the far west of Germany, welcomed recent poll trends that suggest waning support for populist parties across Europe, adding that he’s “not very impressed” with Wilders.

“I’m happy to see -- as in France, as in Germany, in Austria as well as the Netherlands -- that the poll numbers for the PVV are going down,” Altmaier said at an event in Berlin on Tuesday, referring to the Freedom Party by its Dutch acronym. “I hope that a government can be formed very swiftly after the election without the PVV.”

The Liberals are on course to take between 23 and 27 seats versus 22 to 26 seats for the Freedom Party, according to the Peilingwijzer poll aggregator. That’s the first time since November that Rutte’s party has taken the lead in the poll of polls.

It follows a EenVandaag poll on Tuesday that showed the Freedom Party and the Liberals tied for the first time in about 20 months, on 22 seats apiece. A separate poll published by Kantar Public showed the Freedom Party unchanged with 28 seats and the Liberals on 27 seats, up two.

Rutte predicted on Monday that his party would win 41 seats, matching its performance in 2012, while the Freedom Party would take 15 seats as it did the last time around.

“I don’t think the Liberal Party will lose,” Rutte said at an event at Twente University. “This is not what I hope but what I expect.”

Allies Needed

Rutte’s confident tone two weeks before the elections reflects polls that suggest the gap with Wilders is closing, as well as the requirement for coalition partners.

No party ever wins a majority in the lower house of the Dutch Parliament, making coalitions inevitable. A coalition needs to have the support of parties totaling at least 76 seats to ensure it can get its legislation through. That further complicates Wilders’s path to the premiership since he lacks the allies needed to form a government. A coalition would also likely form a majority in the upper house of parliament to ensure bills won’t fail in a later stage.

What’s more, even if Wilders was to form a coalition government, it would be constitutionally hard for him to force a referendum on EU membership since he would need the support of both houses of parliament, Macquarie said in a note on Wednesday.

Almost all the established Dutch parties, including the Liberals and Labor, have ruled out governing with Wilders, but that hasn’t stopped them from courting his followers. Immigration featured in a televised debate among party leaders on Sunday evening, with Labor and the opposition Christian Democrats both arguing for a halt to new arrivals.

Labor under Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher would take 12 seats according to the EenVandaag poll, down from 38 seats in 2012, while the Christian Democrats led by Sybrand van Haersma Buma were on 19 seats.

Even if Wilders narrowly beats Rutte’s party, it’s the Liberals who would most likely form the government at the head of a five-party coalition, Jesse Groenewegen and Nic Vrieselaar of Rabobank wrote in a paper outlining election scenarios in early February.

“Most parties have set up a cordon sanitaire around” the Freedom Party, they said. Assuming Wilders wants to govern rather than head the opposition, any delegation he sends to sound out coalition options “will quickly return empty-handed.”

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue, Celeste Perri, and Chris Malpass

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