Dutch election upended as Turkey dispute seen as aiding Wilders

By Ellen Proper, Corina Ruhe

Right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, leave the stage after a national televised debate. Photo / AP
Right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, leave the stage after a national televised debate. Photo / AP

The Dutch election tomorrow has been upended by a diplomatic standoff with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a spiral of increasingly hostile rhetoric threatened to overshadow the final stretch of campaigning and influence voting.

With little time to polling in the first of Europe's big elections this year, political analysts said the international incident centered on the Netherlands could benefit both Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals and the anti-Islam Freedom Party of populist Geert Wilders.

The upshot may be to re-energise Wilders's campaign just as it appeared to be fading.

"The Cabinet has shown political decisiveness," said Kees Aarts, professor of political institutions and behaviour at the University of Groningen.

"But when you add everything up, what happened will clearly help Wilders. He wasn't very visible during the campaign and not very involved. But in the end it's his main theme that's at stake now."

Politicians on all sides rounded on the Turkish Government for dispatching ministers to the Netherlands for domestic political ends on the eve of the Dutch election.

Erdogan said yesterday that the Netherlands would "pay the price" after Rutte's Government denied entry to Turkey's Foreign Minister and escorted a second Turkish minister to the Dutch border.

"I wasn't waiting for this," Rutte told NRC today, when asked if the chance to play the role of the "strong" prime minister would help him. "This cost me hours and hours of campaign time. But it's just my job, being prime minster comes first."

A snap poll on the incident by Peil.nl found that 86 per cent of more than 2000 respondents said that Rutte had done a good job during the dispute.

However, it also found that Freedom Party voters were fired up, with Wilders supporters saying for first time during the campaign they would "certainly" vote for his party, known by its Dutch acronym, PVV. That could lead to higher turnout among PVV supporters at the election, according to Peil.nl.

Polls open tomorrow night NZT.


Rutte stands to benefit "because he acted firmly to defend the Netherlands in an international conflict," said Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.

"Wilders could benefit because this incident strengthens the image that Turks are not integrated and show more loyalty towards Turkey than to the Netherlands. This could give him more support for his claims about Islam and sending people back to their own country."

Rutte and Wilders held their first debate of the campaign today. The event was broadcast on NPO1. No other party leader attended this so-called "prime ministers' debate."

Rutte's Liberals were projected to take 24 seats to 22 seats for Wilders's anti-European Union Freedom Party in a poll by Peil.nl released at the weekend, each down a seat on the prior survey. That compared with a lead of some 12 seats held by Wilders at the start of the year.

The Christian Democrats gained a seat to also score 22 seats, with the Greens up two on 20, and the D66 Democrats with 17 seats. Rutte's Labour coalition partner had nine seats.

That was before the weekend's dramatic developments, when the Dutch Government withdrew landing rights for Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu before he was due to address a rally in Rotterdam, citing concerns of public disorder.


That drew a rebuke from Erdogan that the Dutch were "fascists". Rutte said Erdogan's comments were "way out of line" and "unacceptable," while Wilders called Erdogan a "dictator" and told Turkish officials to stay away.

The dispute worsened yesterday as foreign ministers from each country traded barbs after Turkish Family Affairs Minister Fatma Kaya was denied entry into her consulate and escorted to the border with Germany. The Dutch say the minister put public order at risk by choosing to "sneak" into the country after talks on possible campaigning abroad by Turkish officials were abandoned.

Alexander Pechtold, the D66 leader, made a plea for calm heads and a return to reason.

"Turkey is one of our allies, one of our neighbours, of the European Union. We should work together," Pechtold said. Even so, he said that Rutte was right to take the action he did. "It was a tough decision, but I felt nothing else was possible in the end."

Erdogan is seeking backing for a referendum in April that would give greater powers to his presidency. He accused Germany of Nazi-style practices a week ago after campaign events by Turkish ministers who wanted to address an estimated 1.4 million Turkish voters living in Germany were similarly cancelled.

Jesse Klaver, leader of the Dutch Greens, said that it was positive "almost all the political parties support the Cabinet" in the dispute.

"While Erdogan tries to split the country, we're all on the same line here," he said.

- Bloomberg

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