Dutch Vote in Test of Populism's Potency at Heart of Europe

  • Premier Mark Rutte vying with Geert Wilders to place first
  • Election will probably lead to prolonged coalition talks

Here's Why the Dutch Elections Matter

Dutch voters are heading to the polls in a general election that will provide the first gauge of the spread of populism into the core of Europe.

The contest pits Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte against his anti-Islam challenger, Geert Wilders, who led for much of the campaign on a platform of pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union and halting immigration. But polls in the past two weeks suggested that Wilders’s attempt to ride the wave of nationalist sentiment that prompted the U.K.’s Brexit vote and catapulted Donald Trump to the White House may have lost momentum.

Mark Rutte casts his vote.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Read more: Where Are the Battlegrounds in the Dutch Election?

Wednesday’s election in one of the EU’s six founding members is the biggest test of the strength and resilience of the populist surge so far this year, with the outcome viewed as a barometer for votes this year in France and Germany, the two biggest economies in the euro zone.

“We see right-wing extremist parties in the Netherlands, in France, in Italy all arguing they want to have a referendum on EU membership,” Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “If you have a call for that referendum, it’s no longer just a referendum on EU membership but a referendum on the euro. And then we’re very quickly back to where we were in the summer of 2012,” when the euro area faced collapse at the height of the Greek crisis.

About 12.9 million people in the Netherlands are eligible to cast their ballots, with voting booths open until 9 p.m., when an exit poll will be released. Ballots will be counted manually to address concerns about hacking, though the electoral authorities do not expect any delays as a result. Data showed the turnout at 3:45 p.m. Amsterdam time was 43 percent, 6 percentage points higher than in the last election in 2012, on a sunny spring day across the country.

The Populist Who Aims to Run the Netherlands (Video)

Source: Bloomberg

A high turnout early on is more likely to be good news for opponents of Wilders’s Freedom Party, according to Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. Freedom Party supporters “had already decided which way to vote, while for the other parties 40 percent were still in doubt,” she said. “This means the other parties might benefit most.”

Sending a Signal

Rutte has called on Dutch voters to use the election to send a signal and draw a line in the sand over the spread of populism. Wilders, who has said he would bar immigrants to the Netherlands from Muslim countries, says that he has already won the election because on policies “everyone is moving toward us.”

The main party leaders voted early: Rutte and Wilders at separate schools in The Hague.

In the final televised debate Tuesday night, Wilders clashed with Labor Party leader Lodewijk Asscher over his vision for the Netherlands. “Holland doesn’t belong to all of us; Holland belongs to the Dutch, people who choose to be 100 percent for this country,” Wilders said. ”Your Holland is a tiny place, without independent judges, critical journalists, without Moroccans; that is not my Holland,” Asscher replied.

Read more: Is Geert Wilders the next voter thunderbolt? A Q&A explains

Rutte’s Liberals are set to take about 26 seats in the 150-member lower house in The Hague, down from 41 seats in 2012, according to the latest Peilingwijzer poll aggregator. That compares with 21 seats projected for Wilders’s Freedom Party, after it took 15 seats last time round.

The Dutch benchmark AEX Index was up 0.3 percent on Wednesday afternoon. Investors have yet to show nervousness about increased volatility or a negative fallout on the AAA-rated economy as a result of the election. Dutch 10-year bond yields were down 3 basis points to 0.67 percent.

Rutte and the other mainstream parties have ruled out entering an alliance with the Freedom Party that makes Wilders’s participation in government unlikely. All the same, with 28 parties contesting the election and as many as 14 of them forecast to enter the parliament, a ruling coalition could comprise five groups or even more -- and take a correspondingly long time to piece together.

Among possible coalition contenders are the Christian Democrats, projected to win about 20 seats, the centrist D66 party with about 18 seats, and the Greens, on some 17 seats. Rutte’s Labor coalition partner, including Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, is facing its biggest loss in history, with Peilingwijzer showing it slumping to about 11 seats from 38 seats in 2012.

With immigration, integration and health and social care the main domestic campaign issues, international attention has focused on the question of whether Wilders can place first. A diplomatic dispute between the Netherlands and Turkey in the last week of the campaign pushed the election even further into the global spotlight, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing the Dutch of Nazi-like behavior.

Three polls late on Tuesday suggested the spat might influence voting, with all showing Rutte extending his lead and support for Wilders fading. All the same, other surveys showed that as many as two-thirds of the electorate remained undecided on the eve of polling.

Coalition Talks

In their first live debate of the campaign, on Monday evening, Wilders and Rutte questioned each other’s integrity and swapped jibes over credibility. The prime minister said he wouldn’t trust Wilders again after the Freedom Party walked away from supporting Rutte’s first minority cabinet in 2012 during an economic crisis. 

The process of forming a government will follow a well-trodden and time-consuming path. Putting together a government has taken an average of 72 days since World War II, with two to five parties in each coalition.

Read more: How to follow the Dutch election

Wilders has questioned whether the other parties will lock him out if his party takes the most seats, saying such an outcome would be “an insult” to voters and lead to government instability.

— With assistance by Martijn Van Der Starre

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