ROTTERDAM, Netherlands – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his main rival at national elections, the far-fight populist Geert Wilders clashed Monday in their only nationally televised face-to-face debate ahead of Wednesday’s vote, with Wilders calling Rutte untrustworthy and Rutte responding by saying a Wilders government would plunge the Netherlands into chaos.
The Dutch election is being seen as a key indicator of the future of populism in Europe after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election. Later this year, two far bigger European nations, France and Germany, also go to the polls.
Wilders’ Party for Freedom, or PVV, has been sliding in polls recently but is still close to Rutte’s VVD.
“On Wednesday the Netherlands has the chance to prevent us waking up on March 16 and you are the biggest party,” Rutte told Wilders. “That chance is still very real. That would mean the biggest party is one that walks away when it gets difficult, which puts party interest above the national interest.”
The prime minister was referring to Wilders’ abandoning support for Rutte’s first minority coalition in 2012 by refusing to back a tough austerity package.
Wilders, in turn, accused Rutte of breaking election pledges and vowed that taking the Netherlands out of the European Union — one of Wilders’ key pledges — would allow the Netherlands “to become the boss in our own country again.”
But in a debate that focused on the economy, health care and immigration, Rutte insisted Wilders did not offer real solutions to problems.
Wilders is unlikely to be able to form the next government even if he wins the popular vote as all mainstream parties have ruled out working with him. The Netherlands’ proportional representation voting system guarantees coalitions.
Referring to the ongoing Dutch diplomatic row with Turkey over Rutte’s decision to block two ministers from addressing rallies in Rotterdam, Wilders said Rutte should “at least throw the Turkish ambassador and his staff out of the country.”
Rutte used the barb to attack Wilders who, like President Donald Trump, often communicates via tweets, portraying Wilders as unfit to lead.
“This is the difference between tweeting from the couch and running the country,” Rutte said. “If you run the country you have to take sensible decisions.”
Earlier Monday, Rutte said he wants the Netherlands to turn the tide of populism in this week’s parliamentary election.
“Remember the Brexit. We all thought that would never happen. Remember the U.S. elections,” he told reporters in Rotterdam. “So let’s not make that mistake again. These elections are crucial. Let us stop the domino effect right this week, this Wednesday. The domino effect of the wrong sort of populism winning in this world.”
In the debate, Rutte mocked one of Wilders’ election pledges — to ban the Quran — asking if he intended to establish a “Quran police” to go door to door confiscating Islam’s holy book.
“What we have to do to protect our borders is not make agreements with people like Mr. Erdoğan,” Wilders said, in a reference to the European Union’s migrant deal with Turkey. Instead the government must “shut the Dutch borders here.”
The two leaders are due to take part in one final pre-election debate with other political leaders Tuesday night.