A Final Twist in the Battle for the Netherlands

A Final Twist in the Battle for the Netherlands
Phil Nijhuis HH POOL via AP

Kaj Leers is the election campaign analyst for Dutch daily de Volkskrant. Follow him on Twitter @kajleers. The views expressed here are the author's own.

After the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, eyes now turn to a slew of elections taking place in Europe. The Dutch vote today. Over the weekend, a row with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put integration, immigration, and national security front and center in the campaign. Will it have an impact? This is the fourth installment in a series on the Dutch election.

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Whether intended or not, a renewed sense of urgency is precisely what Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte needed to reignite hopes of a two-way battle with Geert Wilders in a bid to draw in strategic voters.

The campaign for the Dutch parliament has been a relatively staid affair. While outside observers have breathlessly hyped the vote as a barometer for the continued appeal of European populism, the Netherlands’ own well-known populist, Wilders, faces long odds. And while immigration has been important, the election has seemed to oscillate around more mundane issues.

The last weekend before the vote seemed suddenly to introduce some of that urgency. A little-noticed difference of opinion between the Dutch government and the Turkish president exploded into a fierce war of words, as the Dutch government barred two Turkish government ministers from campaigning in the Netherlands last weekend.

Erdogan gets tough

There are more than 400,000 people with dual Turkish nationality living in the Netherlands, and with polls showing a tight race, President Erdogan needs every vote he can get to secure a critical referendum on extending his presidential powers.

Even though the German, French, and Danish governments have voiced concerns about Ankara’s influence in their respective Turkish constituencies and have also barred Turkish officials, Erdogan chose Holland in particular to pick a fight with, labeling the Dutch as “Nazis” for prohibiting freedom of speech.

Election campaign missed sense of urgency

Prime Minister Mark Rutte was adamant that the decision to refuse Turkish officials entry to the country had nothing to do with the ongoing Dutch election campaign.

Pollsters and pundits are curious to see whether a renewed urgency on the subject of integration and immigration concerning the Turko-Dutch populace will push more people to go out and vote for either Rutte’s ruling free market-conservative VVD, or toward Geert Wilders’ more populist, right-wing Freedom Party, or PVV.

Civilized populism

Rutte's VVD has opted for a kind of "civilized populism" for months now, dating back to last summer, when the prime minister told Turkish Netherlanders to "get lost" (pleur op) if they chose to reject Dutch cultural norms and values.

This came shortly after demonstrations by groups of Turkish Netherlanders in the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey of July 16, 2016.

One on one

As it happened, Rutte and Wilders squared off for a one-on-one debate on Monday evening. The kerfuffle with Erdogan took center stage. Wilders accused Rutte of being one of the politicians who allowed Muslims into the country.

Wilders recalled that he was thrown out of Mark Rutte’s VVD in 2004 because as a member of the VVD in Parliament, he wanted to vote against Turkey’s EU accession talks. The VVD wanted him to vote in favor, but Wilders refused.

Uncertainty about election outcome

With just hours until the vote, pollsters were uncertain of just how large an effect the diplomatic dispute with Turkey would have on the poll’s outcome, if at all. In the first two days of polling after Saturday, responses seemed unmoved, with Wilders seen losing to the VVD by one or two seats.

On a national radio program late on Monday evening, a well-known spin doctor for the VVD said that the recent events could well entice VVD-voters to go out and vote.

He admitted that Rutte needs such a push if the VVD is to come out on top, beating Wilders and other contenders, such as the Christian democrats of the CDA and social-liberals of D66.

As the Dutch cast their votes today, the trendlines show a consolidation for something of a political realignment. On the left, while the far-left Socialists are set to disappoint once more, the more moderate Groenlinks and the centrist D66 seem well-placed to capitalize on the fall of the Labor Party, PvdA, which is being punished for its role in government over the last term.

On the right, the VVD is set to lose a great deal of seats, but not its status as the biggest party in Parliament. The party may benefit from what is known as the premierbonus, in which late-deciding voters back the incumbent prime minister. The VVD, however, will likely hemorrhage voters -- but not to Wilders. Instead, the Christian democrats of the CDA are growing, as is D66, and these two parties are setting themselves up as likely coalition partners to the VVD. Wilders’ PVV has only continued its steady polling plummet, clearly visible here. Watch the final number of seats won by Wilders: Anything below 20 seats in the 150-seat tweede kamer will be seen as a clear rejection of Wilders’ brand of Dutch populism.

Polls have been wrong before. And the Turkish-Dutch row has added a tinge of excitement and unpredictability to the process. Stay tuned after the vote as well -- that is when the real excitement begins.

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