An election to replace the longest-serving leader of the Netherlands gives voters a clean slate


THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — One thing is certain for the Dutch voters casting ballots Wednesday in a general election: Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister, is on the way out.

His replacement after 13 years in office could be the country’s first female premier or a social democrat who left his job as the European Union’s climate czar to return to national politics. The next prime minister also might turn out to be an anti-Islam lawmaker or a centrist who created his party only three months ago.

The outcome after polls opened in the morning is hard to predict given what happened in other European elections in recent months. Populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others, creating conflicting messages on where democracy on the continent was heading.

Spain set the scene in July, when it looked like the far right together with the conservative Christian Democrats might dislodge Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has led the country since 2018. Somehow, the incumbent hung on, though it required political acrobatics and a risky alliance with Catalan nationalists.

In September, populist Robert Fico’s Smer party won the parliamentary election in Slovakia after campaigning on a pro-Russia and anti-American platform. Fico, returning to power for a fourth time, set up a coalition government that now includes an ultra-nationalist party.

Then the next month, the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party extended its reach from its dominant base in the country’s formerly communist east by making a strong showing in two state elections in the west. Recent national polls have put the party in second place nationwide with support of around 20%, about double its popularity during the 2021 federal election.

By the time Poland voted later in October, the question of whether the country would continue veering away from democratic rule of law principles under the Law and Justice party attracted international interest. The extreme-conservative party received the most votes but not a majority in parliament, ultimately losing control of the Polish government to a coalition led by the moderate and pro-EU veteran Donald Tusk.

Now, it’s the election in the Netherlands that has people waiting to see which way the continent’s democratic balance will tip.

Polls showed four political parties, including the far-right Party for Freedom of firebrand Geert Wilders, were neck and neck going into Wednesday’s election. Forming the next government will require weeks or months of coalition talks between parties.

A poll released Tuesday put Wilders’ party very narrowly ahead of Rutte’s liberal, pro-free trade People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and a center-left bloc made up of the Labor Party and Green Left.

If the ruling party manages to clip Wilders’ wings, it would pave the way for Justice and Security Minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius to become the first woman to occupy the prime minister’s office known as the Little Tower.

Yeşilgöz-Zegerius was elected leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, after Rutte resigned, Born in Turkey, she is a former refugee who now advocates a crackdown on migration as the Netherlands struggles to accommodate asylum-seekers.

Veteran politician Wilders, whose poll numbers have risen steadily during the campaign, goes much further, calling for what he calls an “asylum stop” and pushbacks of migrants at Dutch borders. He also wants to organize a referendum on quitting the European Union.

In a final debate Tuesday night, he sought to play down his anti-Islam rhetoric, saying he wanted to be “a premier for all Netherlanders, regardless of their religion or background.”

Two days before the vote, another far-right candidate, Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet, was injured when a man hit him on the head with a beer bottle during a campaign event in the northern city of Groningen. He was back campaigning Tuesday.

Once Wednesday’s votes have been counted, party leaders will have to negotiate the makeup of the next governing coalition. After the 2021 election, it took more than nine months for them to put together a four-party arrangement that was the same as the previous government’s.

Rutte’s fourth and final coalition resigned in July after failing to agree on measures to rein in migration. The issue was one of the dominant themes of the campaign along with how to restore trust in the central government that was eroded by a series of scandals that tarnished Rutte’s time in office.

The leader of the movement to reform government is Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch lawmaker who set up the New Social Contract party over the summer. The party shot up in opinion polls ahead of the election.

The former Christian Democrat has long campaigned for more transparency in government and better protection for whistleblowers. He also has worked on behalf of victims of scandals, ranging from child benefit recipients who were wrongly labeled fraudsters by tax inspectors to people in the northern Groningen province whose houses were damaged by earthquakes caused by gas extraction.

The heavyweight on the political left is former EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who left his international career to return to his socialist roots and head the Labor Party-Green Left bloc. Even if his bloc wins the most seats, he could have trouble building a left-of-center coalition in the politically splintered Netherlands.


Casert reported from Brussels.

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