Dutch voting in election seen as barometer of populism

People line up to vote for the Dutch general election at a polling station in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders prepares to cast his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Geert Wilders casts his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
An elderly woman casts her ballot for the Dutch general elections at a polling station set up in a school in Staphorst, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
Democrats 66 party leader Alexander Pechtold, right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders, Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer, Party for the Animals' Marianne Thieme, Green Left party leader Jesse Klaver, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Gert-Jan Segers of the Christian Union, Labour Party leader Lodewijk Asscher, and Christan Democrats party leader Sybrand Buma, from left, pose for a picture after the closing debate at parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe. (Robin van Lonkhuijsen ANP POOL via AP)
A security guard looks on as Geert Wilders, left, cast his ballot for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, left, and PVV party leader Geert Wilders, right, wait to take their turn in the closing debate at parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe. (Phil Nijhuis HH POOL via AP)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte jokes with journalists after casting his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte shakes hands of children after casting his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
Security guards look on as firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, center, prepares to cast his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Geert Wilders casts his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Prime Minister Mark Rutte and anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders cast Wednesday's Dutch parliamentary elections as a litmus test for populism in Europe, only months ahead of crucial votes in France and Germany.

As the nation went to the voting stations on a bright spring morning, two-term premier Rutte's right-wing VVD party was leading in the latest polls, with the anti-Islam Party for Freedom of firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders a close second.

Coming after last's year British vote to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump — two stunning successes for populists — Rutte now hopes to slow the momentum of what he called the "wrong sort of populism."

"This is a chance for a big democracy like the Netherlands to make a point to stop this toppling over of the domino stones of the wrong sort of populism," Rutte said after his vote.

Despite positive poll results in recent days Rutte was wary of the results. "There is still a risk that we wake up Thursday morning and seeing that Geert Wilders is leading the biggest party," he said.

Wilders sought to dampen expectations for himself — but insisted that whatever the result of Wednesday's election, the kind of populist politics he and others in Europe represent will be here to stay.

"The genie will not go back into the bottle. People feel misrepresented," he said, predicting this would show in elections later this year in France and Germany too.

"Despite what the elite wants, politicians are getting strong who have a totally different concept of what the people want them to do," he said.

Rutte has framed the election as a choice between continuity and chaos, portraying himself as a safe custodian of the nation's economic recovery, while casting Wilders as a far-right radical who would not be prepared to take tough decisions.

The chance of Wilders becoming leader in this country where the proportional representation voting system all but guarantees coalition governments is small — all mainstream parties, including Rutte's VVD, have ruled out working with Wilders.

Wilders' one-page election manifesto includes pledges to close borders to immigrants from Muslim nations, shuttering mosques and banning the Quran, as well as taking the Netherlands out of the European Union.

The final days of campaigning were overshadowed by a diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments over the refusal of the Netherlands to let two Turkish government ministers address rallies about a constitutional reform referendum next month that could give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. It showed Rutte as refusing to bow to pressure from outside, a stance which has widespread backing in the nation.

"It is my task to keep the nation safe and stable and deal with these kinds of people," said Rutte.

The 12.9 million Dutch voters can cast their ballots until 9 p.m. (2000 GMT). They have plenty to choose from; there are 28 parties fielding candidates in the splintered political landscape.

The election in the Netherlands comes ahead of polls in France and Germany later this year, when right-wing nationalists will also be key players.

Voting in Amsterdam, Sam Godfried said he tried to turn the tide away from the far right. "The thing is, I think the whole world around us is getting more extreme and it is just getting more polarized," he said. He did not say who he voted for.

During a final televised debate Tuesday night among leaders from the parties vying for seats and control of the government, Wilders piled on the anti-Islam invective while Rutte played up his leadership experience.

Rutte has driven through unpopular austerity measures over the last four years, but the Dutch economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has fallen fast. So the prime minister is urging voters to stick with him.

Wilders, meanwhile, is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery.

With such a knife-edge vote expected, only one thing appeared certain: Talks to form the next ruling coalition will take a while.

"The longest coalition formation was seven months," said Amsterdam Free University political analyst Andre Krouwel. "It wouldn't surprise me if this results leads to a very complicated and long formation process."

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