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Rutte and Wilders vie for first place in Dutch election

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By Alasdair Sandford
Rutte and Wilders vie for first place in Dutch election

On the rise in the Netherlands: Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VDD party has overtaken its far-right rival in the polls ahead of this month’s election.

It is projected to win between 23 and 27 seats – on course to guarantee a place in a coalition. No single party has won outright for over a century.

But polls can be unreliable, and Dutch politics in particular is unpredictable.

“We are now number one in the polls, but we still have the Freedom Party just behind us, Geert Wilders, so there is still a big risk that he could come out number one, so I think that it would be very bad news. I will fight very hard for my party to get out first,” Rutte said on Thursday as he campaigned in Amsterdam.

Despite its slight slide in the polls, Geert Wilders is still confident that his Party of Freedom can emerge as the largest party in parliament.

But it’s unlikely to enter government. Other parties have ruled out working with the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-EU firebrand.

“Mr Rutte is right, there is a very big chance the PVV will be the biggest party in the Netherlands after the elections,” Wilders said on Friday while campaigning in the town of Volendam. “But I don’t agree with what he says that we do wrong kind of populism. We say what people want to hear when it comes to immigration, integration, Islam, problems which are real.”

Rutte is campaigning on the strength of the Dutch economy: growth this year is predicted to be well above – and unemployment well below – the eurozone average.

Whatever the likelihood or otherwise of Wilders getting a foothold on power, an election “victory” should his party top the polls would have a highly symbolic impact. Wilders’ party is essentially a one-man band with a one-page manifesto, yet his impact on the political scene has arguably already influenced policy.

“Internationally it would mean that people say the next domino has fallen, no matter who eventually governs,” Rutte was quoted as saying. “After Brexit, the US, also the Netherlands – then France, Italy, Germany will follow. If you look at the chaos that arose in the US and the UK, then it’s essential we avoid that.”

The outcome of the Dutch election is made harder to predict by the presence of several parties who are predicted to win enough seats – thanks to proportional representation – to put them in with a shout of a coalition place.

One is the centrist Democrats 66 party, which is currently running fourth. It has benefited from the decline of the Labour party, which has been deserted by many of its voters for supporting in coalition Rutte’s government through years of austerity.

“It’s my ambition to form a coalition, a stable coalition and it’s my personal ambition to become prime minister,” D66 leader Alexander Pechtold said while campaigning in the town of Leiden on Saturday.

The Dutch go to the polls on March 15 for the first of three in European Union founder member countries this year.