Rutte, Wilders Swap Jibes in Debate Just Before Dutch Vote

  • Premier says again he won’t go into coalition with Wilders
  • Freedom Party leader says Rutte broke previous promises

The Anti-Islam Populist Who Wants to Run the Netherlands

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and populist Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders questioned each other’s credibility and integrity as they faced off on live national television for the first time in the country’s election campaign, just 36 hours before the polls open.

The Liberal premier said he won’t trust Wilders again after the Freedom Party walked away from supporting Rutte’s first minority cabinet in 2012 during an economic crisis. “I’m not going to work with such a party again,” Rutte said at the end of the debate in Rotterdam on Monday evening. “Not in a cabinet, and not even relying on you for support outside the government. No, never ever.”

Wilders accused Rutte of breaking promises he made before the elections in 2012. “Who still believes Rutte? I still see him standing there,” the Freedom Party leader said. “We would get tax cuts, a tougher policy on immigration, we would get 1,000 euros. And what came out of these promises? We had record after record immigration. And taxes only increased.”

The clash showcased the two frontrunners in an election seen as a bellwether for votes this year in France and Germany -- the euro area’s two biggest economies -- that are taking place against a backdrop of rising populism, nationalism and anti-European Union sentiment. With a tight race and as many as two-thirds of the electorate undecided, the television debates and a diplomatic dispute between the Netherlands and Turkey could yet influence the outcome of the March 15 ballot.

Viewers of the EenVandaag program named Rutte the winner of Monday’s debate, according to Dutch national news agency ANP. The Dutch Debate Institute also found that Rutte was the winner, ANP said. Almost 2.3 million people watched the debate, out of 12.9 million eligible voters. Another debate, this time involving eight main party leaders, will take place on Tuesday evening at the close of campaigning.

Economic Headwinds

“A landslide victory of EU-skeptical populists here could set a strong precedent with landmark elections looming in France, Germany and potentially Italy,” UBS Group AG economists led by Ricardo Garcia said in a note. Yet even in the base scenario of a broad coalition of some five parties led by Rutte, the legislative process would “likely become more difficult and less flexible in the coming years, constituting a headwind for the economy.”

Read more: Who Will Rutte and Wilders Face?

The benchmark Amsterdam Stock Exchange was down 0.1 percent on Tuesday, while Dutch 10-year bond yields edged up 1 basis point to 0.735 percent.

Three opinion polls Monday showed little change in the overall situation in the final stretch before the election. Two showed Rutte’s Liberals ahead of the anti-Islam, anti-EU Freedom Party by a margin of three to four seats, with the other showing the two parties in a tie. Rutte has overtaken Wilders in most surveys as polling day approaches.

No party is set to win more than a fifth of the seats in the 150-member lower house, so a multiparty coalition will be needed. All the other major parties have ruled out working with Wilders.

Read more on how Dutch election night will play out.

Earlier Monday, Rutte told a news conference in Rotterdam he wants to “stop the wrong kind of populism” taking hold in Europe. He spoke of the importance of the Dutch giving an example with other key western European votes approaching. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen is set to reach the run-off in the French presidential election and the Alternative for Germany is competing for support in Germany in the fall. “The Dutch elections are the quarter-finals,” Rutte said.

Wilders hit back at Rutte for those comments during the debate. “I’m not playing the quarter-final,” Wilders said. “I’m playing the final. A final against the liars, against the givers-away, against the people who don’t allow the Netherlands to be the Netherlands any more.”

For his part, Rutte accused the Freedom Party leader of peddling artificial fixes to the problem of immigration. Wilders has said he wants to close the country’s borders, without detailing how.

“Do you know what that means, closing the borders?” Rutte asked. “That means decent people are stuck in traffic at the border crossing and that people still continue to enter the Netherlands illegally. That’s a fake solution.”

Turkish Dispute

Wilders also attacked Rutte for failing to take stronger action against Turkey in this weekend’s diplomatic dispute, in which the government prevented a Turkish minister from speaking at a rally in Rotterdam, prompting accusations from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Nazi-style behavior by the Dutch.

“We must directly expel the Turkish ambassador and the rest of his staff from the country, otherwise we accept that we are being insulted,” Wilders said during the debate.

“That’s the difference between tweeting from your couch and governing the country,” Rutte replied. “If you govern the country you have to take sensible decisions, and that isn’t sensible.”

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