THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — 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.
During a final election debate among leaders from the parties vying for seats and control of the government, Wilders piled on the anti-Islam invective while Rutte sought to underscore his leadership experience.
None of the party representatives made a critical faux-pas or scored points that should alter campaign dynamics established over months.
The final days of campaigning have been overshadowed by a diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments over the refusal of the Netherlands to let two Turkish government 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 which has widespread backing in the nation.
"It is my task to keep the nation safe and stable and deal with these kind of people," said Rutte.
Rutte has driven through unpopular austerity measures over the last 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 — which pledges 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."
"The Netherlands does not belong to all of us," he proclaimed.
Wilders also is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery in this nation of 17 million.
Ruud van Dongen, a 49-year-old chauffeur, said he would vote for Wilders' PVV as a protest against more flexible contracts that mean fewer people have jobs for life which used to be a staple in Dutch welfare state.
"Do you know what's the deal with jobs? They last for two years and then people are on the street," he said.
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."
While Rutte's ruling VVD party holds a narrow lead over Wilders in most polls, other parties are also still in the running and well placed to play a role in forming the next coalition.
Leader Sybrand Buma has moved the traditionally center-right Christian Democrats to the right to counter Wilders, while the pro-European Union liberal democrats D66 are also on track to win more seats. On the left, 30-year-old Justin Trudeau look-alike Jesse Klaver is on course to lead the Green Left party to its best ever electoral result.
The diplomatic crisis with Turkey and Rutte's tough reaction to it appears to have cast the prime minister in a positive light on the eve of the election.
"Our prime minister did a very good job at the right moment for the elections," said Albert Busch, an entrepreneur from Limmen. "The chance he will be chosen tomorrow is much bigger than it was last week."
With such a knife-edge vote expected, only one thing appeared certain: Talks to form the next ruling coalition will take a while.
"The longest coalition formation was seven months," Krouwel said. "It wouldn't surprise me if this results leads to a very complicated and long formation process."