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Engaged but fragmented, Dutch voters take to the polls in litmus test election

Wednesday's poll pits far-right firebrand Geert Wilders against a slew of other small parties after a collapse in support for the incumbents
A woman pushes a pram past campaign posters for the green party in the west Amsterdam suburb of De Baarsjes (MEE / Venetia Rainey)

Dutch voters headed to the polls on Wednesday in a hotly anticipated election that is being seen as a bellwether for European populism - a fact not lost on voters on the sunny streets of Amsterdam.

"Last night I felt scared about what is going to happen," Charlina, a 21-year-old who works at a green energy company, said outside a polling station at a hotel in the centre of the city. "With Trump and Brexit people said, 'That's never gonna happen,' and it still happened."

'Last night I felt scared about what is going to happen'

- Charlina, aged 21 

She supports GroenLinks, and many of her friends do too. The Dutch green party – which is pro-EU, pro-refugees and pro-environmental protection - has enjoyed an enormous boost in the last few months, and is especially popular in left-leaning Amsterdam. "At the moment I'm feeling really positive," said Charlina.

But she admitted that the Dutch capital is far from reflective of how the rest of the Netherlands feels, and that the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders - who historically polls very low in the city and has little visible presence there - is increasingly popular elsewhere in the country. "I think when you look outside the bubble there's a lot of discontent - people are feeling scared of big changes, and of immigrants."

The latest aggregate polling data predicts that Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) will capture around 14 percent of the vote, with four other parties - including GroenLinks - close behind. If the polls are correct, the result will be a highly fractured political landscape, one that will likely lead to months of difficult coalition talks to secure a majority government in the 150-seat parliament.

Turkey spat gives Rutte much-needed boost

After months of lagging in second, the incumbent Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte has sped into the lead in the last week.

Rutte's liberal-conservative party is seen as having swung to the right in an attempt to capture Wilders' voters. Earlier this year he penned an open letter to the country telling immigrants to "act normal or get out".

His last-minute boost likely stems from his handling of the recent spat with Turkey, which saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slam the Netherlands as “Nazis” and “fascists” after two Turkish ministers were denied entry to attend a pro-government rally.

Despite the eleventh-hour surge, though, he is only expected to win around 17 percent of the vote, a significant climbdown from the 26 percent he won in 2012.

Mindful of the close attention being paid to the election across Europe and beyond, on Monday he called on voters to “stop this trend of the wrong sort of populism” by choosing him and the VVD on Wednesday. One of those who heeded that call was David Marks, a consultant from the UK who recently became a Dutch citizen after living in the country for 22 years. 

"I think he's doing quite a good job, relatively speaking," Marks said outside a polling station at a Mennonite church in central Amsterdam. "It's for stability, basically ... And I want to prevent the PVV from becoming the largest party."

Wilders during a 2016 trial on charges of inciting racial hatred (Reuters)

'He's a clown'

Like many, Marks was dismissive of the outspoken, peroxide blonde leader – but concerned by the level of support he has garnered. "I think he's a clown. He doesn't worry me, but I do think it's upsetting that people follow these sentiments. I wish people would see beyond that and see what we have rather than what we don't have."

Over in the hip, multicultural neighbourhood of De Baarsjes in west Amsterdam, Shaima, a 20-year-old student of occupational therapy, also shrugged off the impact of Wilders' heavily anti-Islamic campaign rhetoric and pledges.

'We live in the Netherlands and it's a free country - it's always been a free country, so I don't think that stuff will happen'

- Shaima, aged 20

"I'm not taking it very seriously," said Shaima from outside a sun-drenched cafe by a canal. Wilders has promised to close all mosques and ban the Quran. But Shaima sees this as hot air: "We live in the Netherlands and it's a free country - it's always been a free country, so I don't think that stuff will happen."

Shaima is one of millions of voters who were still deciding who to vote for when polls opened - some 40 percent of the 13 million eligible voters still had not made up their minds by Tuesday.

She has taken the popular online Stemwijzer test, a tool developed by Dutch organisation ProDemos, which matches a user's viewpoints with one or more political parties. The results indicated that her political home was with D66, a centrist party with social-liberal values that is set to get about 12 percent of the vote, but by Wednesday she still wasn’t completely sure.

"I know it’s today," she laughed as she adjusted her hijab, "but we have time until 9pm [when the polls close], so I think I'm going home to check all the arguments on the Internet, and then make a decision. It's my first election and I'm excited to vote."

Shaima talks to a friend outside a cafe in De Baarsjes (MEE / Venetia Rainey)
Anti-migrant backlash

There is certainly a higher level of engagement than in previous elections. Turnout this time is expected to surpass 80 percent, compared to 74.6 percent in 2012, according to Europe Elects, which studies election data from across the continent.

"It's been very busy, more so than at the last election," said Jantina, a 58-year-old dance teacher who was running a polling station at an Islamic school in De Baarsjes. "I think people are very involved in the discussion, and they're very motivated."

'People blame them for letting people in and not making them speak the language'

- Mariana, aged 69

As well as the high turnout, this election cycle is noteworthy for the huge collapse in support for the other incumbent party, the Labour Party (PvDA), which since 2012 has ruled the country in coalition with Rutte’s VVD. Following Wednesday’s poll, it is predicted to go from 35 seats to around 12.

Mariana Deeker, a 69-year-old screenwriter voting in the wealthier south Amsterdam neighbourhood of Rivierenburt, put this down to anger over the party’s historic pro-immigration stance. "I think people blame them for letting people in and not making them speak the language years and years ago," she said. "I think they are paying the price for action from a long time ago."

New parties take advantage of fragmentation

This drop in support for the traditional parties has also allowed other, much smaller, parties to pick up votes. One of those is the newly-formed Artikel 1, a party dedicated to fighting discrimination and racism in the Netherlands.

"All the other parties are dominated by straight white men, and I think this party stands up for minority rights," said Tim, a 22-year-old international relations student who planned to vote for them later in the day. "I hope they will at least get one seat in parliament."

Wilders, he predicted, is unlikely to cause a major upset in a country where a consensus-based model of politics still holds great weight.

"I'm not worried because it's not like one party or one person will get all the power like in the US," he said with a smile as he smoked outside a polling station in central Amsterdam. "That's what I like about our democracy."