THE HAGUE: Millions of Dutch flocked to the polls Wednesday in a test of the “patriotic revolution” promised by far-right Geert Wilders, with Europe closely watching the outcome amid signs his support may be waning.
Following last year’s shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the Dutch vote is seen as a gauge of populism on the continent ahead of key elections in France and Germany this year.
The Dutch election has also been gatecrashed by an explosive row with Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hurled a new round of abuse at The Netherlands on Wednesday, accusing the country of massacring over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995.
READ MORE: All to play for on eve of Dutch vote
Wilders voted in a school in The Hague, mobbed by hundreds of reporters, as final polls suggested he was trailing the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
“Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay,” Wilders said.
Polls close at 2000 GMT, with exit polls expected shortly after. Wilders has reason to be cautious however after his Freedom Party (PVV) has flopped in past votes.
“Let’s wait and see what the result will be,” he told reporters.
On a warm spring day, queues began swelling early and the research institute IPSOS said turnout was already “a lot” higher than at the same point in 2012 when final participation was 74 percent.
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters had been wavering between the 28 parties running.
“This is a crucial election for The Netherlands,” Rutte said as he voted.
“This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point… to stop this… domino effect of the wrong sort of populism.”
Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques and leave the EU.
Trumpeting the country’s economic growth and stability, Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country — one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.
In the central Hague district of Schilderswijk, where most residents are from Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese backgrounds, a steady flow of voters -– many of them women wearing headscarfs –- came and went at one polling station.
None wanted to speak openly though. “The people are feeling very delicate right now,” one man told AFP, referring to the row with Turkey.
“You’d be surprised, but some people here will vote for the PVV. They may not support Geert Wilders, but they are fed up with the criminality, perpetuated mainly by youngsters who lack the benefit of a proper education,” said another man, who also asked not to be named.
Final polls appeared to show Rutte consolidating his lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats — well down on its 40 outgoing seats.
After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped and was seen barely clinging onto second place with between 19 and 22 MPs — up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.
Closing in on Wilders were long-standing parties the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs. Both would be natural coalition partners for Rutte.
“I am hoping for a strong centre” coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft.
“But I’m afraid it’s going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government,” he told AFP.
Rutte’s handling of the crisis with Ankara — barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another — appears to have boosted his image.
Wilders though won support Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him “a patriot”.
It reportedly takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority.
While traditional Labour appears to be sinking, the ecologist left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver could win 16 to 18 seats.
“I hope GroenLinks will win. Jesse Klaver is a breath of fresh air,” said lawyer Marloes van Heugten.