THE HAGUE: Dutch politicians hit the airwaves and the campaign trail Tuesday, battling to win over undecided voters in the final countdown to an election overshadowed by an acrimonious row with Turkey.
On the eve of Wednesday’s legislative polls, many of the 12.9 million eligible Dutch voters appear not to have made up their minds on which of the record 28 parties in the running to choose.
A final debate between the eight top party leaders was slated for Tuesday night, with analysts saying there was still a lot to play for in the race to govern The Netherlands.
Many voters said they hoped the final showdown would help them make up their minds.
“I’m going to watch the debate closely in order to be clear about my decision and whom I’m going to choose,” first-time voter Giorgio Frans, 20, told AFP at the entrance to the historic Dutch parliament, the Binnenhof.
“I was still undecided between three persons, which have now been reduced to two… but in any case never on Wilders,” said Mieke Oostrom, pushing her bicycle past the small lake in front of the Binnenhof.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberal VVD are topping the latest polls, and poised to win by a whisker with a predicted 24 to 28 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
But he is fighting off a stiff challenge from the Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, his far-right anti-Islam rival, who may scoop up 20 to 24 seats.
In a one-page party manifesto, Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants and shut mosques. But he has revealed virtually no details of how he would put such plans into action.
Rutte and Wilders clashed Monday in their only televised head-to-head debate, laying out sharply different visions for the future.
Rutte again insisted that he would never work with his rival, a stand that could complicate moves to form a coalition government.
Bidding for a third term, Rutte pointed to his six years as premier overseeing growth, in one of the leading economies in the eurozone, and the need for stability for the country’s 17 million people.
But a diplomatic row with Turkey, which has suspended its 400-year-old ties with The Netherlands and prompted incendiary accusations from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has gate-crashed the campaigns.
“You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders,” Wilders told Rutte, as tempers flared during the debate Monday.
“That’s a totally fake solution,” Rutte shot back, “you want Nexit, you want The Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost… don’t do it.”
But Rutte, who had previously said it was time to de-escalate the crisis with Ankara, angrily retorted on Tuesday to statements by Erdogan saying the Dutch “character” was broken after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers were overrun by Bosnian Serb forces and failed to protect Muslim refugees.
“He (Erdogan) continues to escalate the situation,” Rutte told Dutch news TV channel RTL Nieuws, adding that “it’s a repugnant historical falsehood”.
While Wilders’s views have won growing support amid Europe’s refugee crisis, many of the Dutch still find them unpalatable and most of the leading parties, including Rutte, have vowed not to work with him.
In the wake of last year’s Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential polls, the Dutch elections are being keenly watched to measure the strength of far-right and populist candidates ahead of other votes in Europe this year.
Amid such a fragmented political landscape and the possibility the next government will be led by an unwieldy four or five-party coalition, many Dutch may well vote strategically.
The diplomatic crisis with Turkey, which flared at the weekend after the Dutch government barred Turkish ministers from speaking at a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam, appears to have boosted Rutte’s image.
“I think what happened with the Turkish incident reinforced his leadership,” Monika Sie Dhian Ho, director of the Clingendael Institute, told AFP.
She said as many as 60 percent of voters might still be wavering, “so this is volatile, many things can happen.”
Amid the jostling, long-standing Dutch parties such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democracy Party (D66) have seen their fortunes rise as the clock ticks down to the vote. They could both prove to be key players in a future coalition.
Jesse Klaver, 30, a young and charismatic left-wing leader who heads GroenLinks, was out early Tuesday campaigning in the university city of Leiden.
He has boosted his party in the polls, and could win 16 to 18 seats, leaving him with a kingmaker role for a coalition.