Dutch election: Voters choose new leaders in neck-and-neck race

Source: BBC

Four parties have emerged as front-runners as Dutch voters are deciding who will lead their country into a new political era.

The polls suggest a neck-and-neck race and voting ends at 21:00 (20:00GMT).

Centre-right leader Dilan Yesilgöz is tipped to win and become the first female Dutch prime minister.

Her closest rivals are anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders and a left-alliance led by former top-ranking EU commissioner Frans Timmermans.

More than 13 million Dutch voters have a choice of 26 parties in Wednesday’s vote, and as many as 17 could win seats.

European eyes are watching this election closely, after 13 years of governments under Mark Rutte. The biggest party could end up with less than 20% of the national vote and fewer than 30 seats in the 150-seat parliament, unprecedented in Dutch politics.

Trust in the government is at a low ebb after a political scandal left thousands of parents wrongly labelled as welfare fraudsters. A politician who championed their rights set up a centrist party only three months ago and already he is being cast as kingmaker.

Pieter Omtzigt’s New Social Contract is likely to be central to forming the next coalition government. He has shown little interest in running the country, but whoever does win will need his support.

“I know what I’m capable of for the Dutch people,” said Dilan Yesilgöz, who came to the Netherlands as the daughter of Turkish refugees and has made lowering migration levels as much a priority as tackling the high cost of living.

Unlike her rivals, she has not ruled out working with Mr Wilders’ Freedom Party. But if he wins, she will keep her conservative-liberal VVD party well clear of a Wilders government.

When he announced in Tuesday night’s final TV debate that he would be a prime minister for all Dutch people, she said that could only happen if he tore up all his policies, such as banning Islam and leaving the EU, dubbed “Nexit”.

Mr Wilders, who has been an MP for 25 years, has offered to put his anti-Islam policies on hold, and said he understands that Dutch voters are not yet ready to leave the EU.

“We have no Nexit in our programme, we have a referendum about Nexit and that’s something different,” he told the BBC.

His rhetoric in this election has been mild, says political scientist Martin Rosema, who believes some of the parties could find a way of working with him in government.

“There could be an option that [the Freedom Party] supports the coalition with or without ministers. You usually either a have a majority or a minority [government], but in this case there could be something in-between.”

Despite that extraordinary amount of choice on offer, many voters are apathetic and on the eve of the vote almost half were still said to be undecided. That figure is borne out in one of Rotterdam’s poorest neighbourhoods, Crooswijk.

“I’ve not decided yet, but it’ll be one of the parties that wasn’t in the last cabinet,” said Laura. “They’re all responsible for the prices going up.” 

Drago who works in his girlfriend’s local cafe complains that higher taxes are making life impossible. He complains that migration has exacerbated an already difficult housing crisis, which has left the Netherlands with a shortage of 390,000 homes.

Three female students in the local launderette said they too would probably vote either for Labour-GreenLeft (PvdA/GL) alliance, although they too voiced concerns about migration.

The leader of the left-wing alliance, Frans Timmermans, believes he has a strong chance of running the next government.

“This country can never function without a coalition, it’s our history,” he told the BBC. 

“The left has never been able to govern this country on its own, we always need partners in the centre of politics.”

Last year net migration into the Netherlands more than doubled beyond 220,000, partly because of refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That’s why even Pieter Omtzigt’s centrist NSC wants a ceiling of 50,000 on migration, and it is one of the reasons why Geert Wilders has been surging in the polls.

Far-right rival Thierry Baudet has not enjoyed the same success with the voters. He has fallen behind in the polls and twice came under attack on the campaign trail, ending up in hospital on Monday night after being hit over the head with a beer bottle.

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