The top contenders to lead the Netherlands, from a former refugee to an anti-Islam populist


THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — No fewer than 26 Dutch political parties are seeking a share of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament when the Netherlands holds a general election Wednesday. Only a few of them stand a realistic chance of providing the candidate who will succeed Mark Rutte as prime minister.

Rutte, who is standing down once a new government is formed, led four coalitions over a record-breaking 13 years, making him the longest-serving Dutch prime minister. These are the main contenders to succeed him.

Dilan Yesilgöz-Zegerius, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy

Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, who could become the Netherlands’ first female prime minister, is a former refugee and now advocates cracking down on migration.

The 46-year-old justice minister and leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, sees no contradiction in that.

Instead, her party riffs on Yeşilgöz-Zegerius’ story in its manifesto as a reason to rein in immigration.

“The Netherlands must, of course, always be prepared to offer security to people fleeing war and violence,” the election program says.

But it adds the country can’t welcome everybody, because doing so could deprive “an 8-year-old girl who arrives as a refugee in the Netherlands today of a reasonable chance to later become an engineer, nurse, police officer or (government) minister and leader of the VVD.”

Her father was a human rights activist forced to flee Turkey. She and the rest of her family were later reunited after he was granted political asylum in the Netherlands.

“Dilan grew up with the example of parents who do not look away from injustice and actively play a role in making society a little bit better,” her official VVD biography says.

Yeşilgöz-Zegerius took over as leader of the VVD from Rutte and wants to follow him into the prime minister’s office.

Though Rutte appointed her as justice minister in his final ruling coalition, she has sought to distance herself from his increasingly unpopular and scandal-tainted time in office, saying he remained in power too long.

“I’m a different person. I’m not focused on whether things should be different or the same but with how I’m going to do things,” she said.

Geert Wilders, Party for Freedom

Geert Wilders is the anti-Islam lawmaker whose sharp tongue and shock of peroxide blond hair made him one of the Netherlands’ best-known lawmakers at home and abroad.

His fiery anti-Islam rhetoric also has made him a target for extremists and led to him living under round-the-clock protection for years. He has appeared in court as a victim of death threats, vowing never to be silenced.

To court mainstream voters this time around, Wilders has sought to focus less on what he calls the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands and more on tackling hot-button issues such as housing shortages, a cost-of-living crisis and health care.

His campaign platform nonetheless calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, an “asylum stop” and “no Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques.”

Wilders, 60, is set to become the longest-serving lawmaker in the Dutch parliament later this year. He has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1998, first for the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, where he mentored a young Rutte before quitting the party and setting up his Party for Freedom.

He also is a staunch supporter of Israel and advocates shifting the Embassy of the Netherlands there to Jerusalem and closing the Dutch diplomatic post in Ramallah, home of the Palestinian Authority.

Wilders was convicted of insulting Moroccans at a 2014 election night gathering.

Pieter Omtzigt, New Social Contract

Pieter Omtzigt, 49, established his center-right New Social Contract party over the summer, and it immediately rocketed up opinion polls thanks to his reputation as a tireless crusader for whistleblowers and victims of government scandals.

He became a sensation during drawn-out talks to form the last Dutch coalition government when one of the negotiators was photographed carrying papers that included the text: “job elsewhere” next to his name.

It was widely seen as a sign that the established political order wanted to be rid of a man who had long been a thorn in their side. It only served to bolster Omtzigt’s popularity.

A former member of the center-right Christian Democrats, his key policy platform is reforming the Dutch political system that has been tarnished in recent years by scandals including the country’s tax office wrongly labelling thousands of child welfare recipients as fraudsters.

“It’s very necessary to have a different culture,” he said. “We’ve seen large scandals over the last few years in the Netherlands. Those large scandals have been caused by the way we we’ve been dealing with politics.”

Omtzigt wants to establish a constitutional court and to reform the electoral system to give lawmakers more power.

He has repeatedly said he prefers to remain in parliament where he can lead lawmakers’ efforts to keep a close watch on the ruling coalition. Late in the election campaign said he would consider becoming prime minister if his party wins the most seats.

Omtzigt says he’s learned to better balance work and home life since suffering a burnout that forced him to temporarily halt his work as a lawmaker.

“Sometimes you can shift down a gear,” he said, adding later: “I feel top fit.”

Frans Timmermans. Labor Party-Green Left

Frans Timmermans left his position as European Union climate chief and vice president of the European Commission to lead a newly forged center-left alliance of the Labor Party and Green Left into the election.

As a former Dutch foreign minister, the 62-year-old Timmermans is the most experienced of all the leading candidates. That’s not necessarily a good thing in a campaign that has focused on political renewal after a series of scandals that tarnished Rutte’s reputation.

Timmermans, who was foreign minister from 2012-14, was thrust to international prominence when he gave an emotional speech to the United Nations Security Council shortly after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

He is known for fluently speaking several languages, although rival Wilders managed to turn that skill against him and portray him as aloof in a televised debate.

“You speak, I believe, seven languages, but not the language of the people,” Wilders said.

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