March 13, 2017 / 3:01 PM / in 7 months

Dutch voting in test of European anti-establishment sentiment

A man and child cycle past an election poster billboard the day before a general election, in Utrecht, Netherlands, March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch people voted on Wednesday in an election seen as a test of nationalist feeling magnified by a furious row with Turkey in recent days, the first of three polls this year in the European Union where anti-immigrant parties are seeking breakthroughs.

The center-right VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 50, is vying with the PVV (Party for Freedom) of anti-Islam and anti-EU firebrand Geert Wilders, 53, to form the biggest party in parliament.

As many as 13 million voters began casting ballots at polling stations across the country that will close at 9:00 p.m.

“I am voting for Wilders. I hope he can make a change to make the Netherlands better,” said Wendy de Graaf, who was dropping her children off at school in The Hague. “I don’t agree with everything he says...but I feel that immigration is a problem.”

Wilders, who has vowed to “de-Islamicise” the Netherlands, has virtually no chance of forming a government given that all the leading parties have ruled out working with him, but a PVV win would still send shockwave across Europe.

The vote is the first gauge of anti-establishment sentiment in the European Union and the bloc’s chances of survival after the surprise victory of EU-skeptic Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s 2016 vote to exit the union.

France chooses its next president, with far-right Marine Le Pen set to make the second-round run-off in May, while in September right-wing euroskeptic party Alternative for Germany, which has attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, will probably win its first lower house seats.

In the Netherlands, late opinion polls indicated a three percentage point lead for Rutte’s party over Wilders’, although these did not fully take into account a rupture of diplomatic relations with Ankara after the Dutch banned Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of overseas Turks.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Dutch of behaving like Nazis.

Early indications are that the dispute may have helped both.

NO CLEAR WINNER, WEEKS OF BARGAINING

Unlike the U.S. or French presidential elections, there will be no outright Dutch winner, with up to 15 parties having a realistic chance of winning a seat in parliament and none set to gain even 20 percent of the vote.

“The real overriding theme of this election campaign has been the splintering of the electorate,” said pollster Maurice de Hond.

“Although the conflict with Turkey helped the biggest parties, the final polls show that whichever finishes first is likely to do so with a record low percentage of the total vote.”

Experts predict a coalition-building process that will take months once the final tally is known.

Rutte’s last government was a two-party coalition with the Labour Party, but with no party polling above 17 percent, at least four will be needed to secure a majority in parliament. It would be the first such multi-party alliance since three in the 1970s. Two of those fell apart within 12 months.

In Amsterdam, a special voting station at the Tolhuistuin, a music club, was open from midnight to 3 a.m. to pull in youthful voters, many of whom support Green Left, the environmentalist party expected to book the largest gains in the election.

In a final debate Tuesday night, Wilders clashed with Lodewijk Asscher, whose Labour party stands to lose two-thirds of its seats in its worst defeat ever on current polling.

Asscher defended the rights of law-abiding Muslims to not be treated as second-class citizens or insulted for wearing headscarves.

“The Netherlands belongs to all of us, everyone who does their best” Asscher told Wilders, to applause from onlookers.

Wilders shot back that Labour policies permitting immigration had cost the country “buckets of money”, with high rates of unemployment and criminality among immigrants.

“The welfare state that Labour once stood for - you used to stand for something - and an immigration country, they can’t go together,” he said.

Front-runner Rutte, who is hoping Dutch economic recovery will help him carry the election, has been insistent on one thing - that he will neither accept the PVV as a coalition partner nor rely on Wilders to support a minority government, as was the case in 2010-2012.

“I will not work with such a party, Mr Wilders, not in a cabinet nor with you supporting from outside. Not, never, not,” Rutte told Wilders.

Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Dominic Evans

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