THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Prime Minister Mark Rutte and anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders defined Wednesday’s Dutch parliamentary election as a litmus test for populism in Europe, where France and Germany also face crucial contests in the months ahead.
As voters cast ballots on a bright spring day, the latest polls showed two-term premier Rutte’s right-wing VVD party leading, with the Party for Freedom of anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders placing a close second.
Rutte hopes to slow the momentum of what he called the “wrong sort of populism” after last’s year British vote to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump — two stunning successes for populists.
“This is a chance for a big democracy like the Netherlands to make a point to stop this toppling over of the domino stones of the wrong sort of populism,” Rutte said after voting.
Despite promising poll results in recent days, Rutte remained wary.
“There is still a risk that we wake up Thursday morning and seeing that Geert Wilders is leading the biggest party,” he said.
Wilders also sought to dampen expectations, but insisted that whatever the result of Wednesday’s election, the kind of populist politics he and others in Europe represent aren’t going away.
“The genie will not go back into the bottle. People feel misrepresented,” he said, predicting the feeling would surface in the French and Germany elections.
Rutte has framed the election as a choice between continuity and chaos, portraying himself as a safe custodian of the nation’s economic recovery and casting Wilders as a far-right radical who was unprepared to make tough decisions.
The chance of Wilders becoming prime minister in the Netherlands, where a proportional representation voting system all but guarantees coalition governments, is remote. All mainstream parties, including Rutte’s VVD, have ruled out working with Wilders and his Party for Freedom.
Wilders voter Berry van Hagen criticized the parties for shutting out Wilders’ party, which is known by its Dutch acronym, PVV.
“It’s nonsense that many parties say that they won’t form a government with the PVV,” van Hagen, 63, said. “And yes, then you get a total exclusion, and you can’t speak about democracy anymore.”
Wilders’ one-page election manifesto includes pledges to close borders to immigrants from Muslim nations, shutter mosques and ban the Quran, as well as to take the Netherlands out of the European Union.
The campaign’s final days were overshadowed by a diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments.
It erupted over the refusal of the Netherlands to let two Turkish government ministers address rallies about a referendum next month that could give Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers.
The crisis nevertheless gave Rutte an opportunity to refuse to bow to foreign pressure, a stance with widespread backing in the nation.
“It is my task to keep the nation safe and stable and deal with these kinds of people,” Rutte said.
The 12.9 million Dutch voters can cast their ballots until 9 p.m. (2000 GMT). They have plenty of options; there are 28 parties fielding candidates in the splintered political landscape.
The sunny weather appeared to bring out the voters. Ipsos, which was conducting an exit poll, said that by mid-afternoon 43 percent of the electorate had voted, well above the 37 percent who had voted by that point in the day in 2012.
Voting in Amsterdam, Sam Godfried said he tried to turn the tide away from the far right.
“I think the whole world around us is getting more extreme and it is just getting more polarized,” he said. He did not say for whom he voted.
During a final televised debate Tuesday night among leaders from the parties vying for seats and control of the government, Wilders piled on the anti-Islam invective while Rutte played up his leadership experience.
Rutte has driven through unpopular austerity measures over the last four years, but the Dutch economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has fallen fast.
Wilders, meanwhile, is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery.
With a close outcome expected, only one thing appeared certain: Talks to form the next ruling coalition will take a while.
“The longest coalition formation was seven months,” Amsterdam Free University political analyst Andre Krouwel said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this results leads to a very complicated and long formation process.”