Dutch voters yesterday headed to provincial polls billed as a referendum on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s policies, after a campaign overshadowed by a possible terror attack on a tram.
Right-wing parties pushed the issue of integration back into the foreground as the country reeled from Monday’s shooting in the city of Utrecht for which a Turkish-born man has been arrested.
The Dutch ballot is to be widely watched abroad as a bellwether for European Parliament elections in May in which populist parties are expected to make broad gains.
Following the Utrecht attack, almost all political parties halted campaigning for the elections — which are for provincial bodies, but determine the composition of the Dutch senate or upper house of parliament.
Only the populist, anti-EU Forum for Democracy, led by Thierry Baudet, continued with a rally in The Hague’s seaside suburb of Scheveningen, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers.
The young and telegenic Baudet accused Rutte’s government of “naive” immigration policies and told the crowd that a “change of course is needed, otherwise this is going to happen more often in the Netherlands.”
Polls show center-right prime minister Rutte’s four-party coalition — which currently carries a slender one-seat senate majority — is headed for major losses when the senate seats are decided.
The head of the Dutch socialist party has called the vote a “Rutte referendum,” although Rutte has said he would not step down if his coalition loses its majority and therefore needs help to drive through laws.
Rutte has been in power for eight years, and after playing a key role in Brexit negotiations has widely been tipped to take up a top EU post in Brussels when the setup led by Jean-Claude Juncker steps down later this year.
Dutch newspapers predicted that GroenLinks — the leftist ecological party led by Jesse Klaver, a politician best known abroad for his strong resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — was set to make gains and become a potential senate kingmaker.
Meanwhile, Baudet’s party could threaten the anti-Islam Freedom Party of bleached blonde far-right leader Geert Wilders, which has traditionally attracted hardliners in the Netherlands.
However, in a development that would be watched with alarm across Europe ahead of the European elections, the two hardline Dutch parties could together form the second-biggest block in the senate.
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