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Dutch PM makes last-minute pitch to halt ‘wrong sort of populism’

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party attends a news conference during campaigning for the Dutch elections in Rotterdam, Netherlands, March 13, 2017.

DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has urged voters in his country to stop the "domino effect" of countries embracing the "wrong sort of populism."

In a remarkable last-minute pitch to voters on Monday, Mr. Rutte told a group of foreign journalists that he was worried about Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders winning the most seats in Wednesday's election. Mr. Wilders has campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform and called on the country to ban the Koran and close mosques. He also wants to pull the country out of the European Union.

Opinion polls put him even with Mr. Rutte's Liberals and the two men will face off in a television debate Monday evening. It's the first debate Mr. Wilders has agreed to during the campaign.

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"Let us stop the domino affect right here this week, this Wednesday," Mr. Rutte said. "The domino effect of the wrong sort of populism winning in this world … Remember Brexit. We all thought that would never happen. Remember the U.S. election."

Mr. Rutte referred to the Netherland's election as the first step in stopping populists such as Mr. Wilders, adding that upcoming elections in France and Germany face similar movements. "You could say these are the quarter-finals in trying to prevent the wrong sort of populism to win," he said referring to Wednesday's vote. "The semi-finals are in France in April and May and then in September, in Germany, you have the finals."

He added that he was "worried about what it will mean if Geert Wilders ends up being the biggest party [after the election], because that will have an impact on how the Netherlands is seen in the rest of the world."

Support for Mr. Wilders has been falling in some opinion polls, but his campaign appears to be getting a boost from a diplomatic row between Turkey and the Netherlands. On Saturday, Dutch officials prevented two Turkish cabinet ministers from addressing rallies in Rotterdam. Turkey is holding a referendum next month on constitutional changes that would give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Yes campaigners have been trying to drum up support in European countries such as the Netherlands that have large expatriate Turk communities. Mr. Erdogan labelled Dutch actions "Nazi-like" and he has threatened sanctions.

Mr. Rutte has sharply criticized Mr. Erdogan's comments and said the Netherlands "will never negotiate under threats."

He also said he disagreed with Turkish ministers coming to the Netherlands to campaign for constitutional changes that have been deemed undemocratic by some organizations. "We are uncomfortable with Turkish ministers campaigning here on this referendum," he said.

The Netherlands has enjoyed solid economic growth in recent years and last year unemployment fell by the most in 10 years. Nonetheless, voters appear to be turning away from establishment parties like Mr. Rutte's Liberals and embracing a host of smaller parties. A total of 28 parties are contesting 150 parliamentary seats and polls show the Liberals losing as many as 10 seats from the 40 the party had going into the campaign. Most analysts still expect the Liberals to win the most seats, barely, and form a coalition with likely four other parties. But that process won't be easy and could take months. Mr. Rutte has also said he will not form a coalition that includes Mr. Wilders.

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On Monday Mr. Rutte acknowledged that many people feel left behind and let down by establishment politicians. "And they are asking politicians, me and others, are you there still also for me? Are you still fighting for my interests? And my answer is, Yes. That's why I have said I will not work with Geert Wilders, but I will discuss and engage with his voters."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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