Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has clashed with his main rival anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, as they laid out starkly opposing visions of their country’s future in an election campaign now consumed by a diplomatic row with Turkey.
Two days before Wednesday’s crucial general election, the Netherlands is mired in a war of words with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, something that has provided fodder for Wilders and his uncompromising anti-immigration stance.
‘You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders,” Wilders told Rutte, as tempers flared in the 30-minute head-to-head televised debate.
"That’s a totally fake solution,” Rutte shot back, "you want Nexit, you want the Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost ... don’t do it.”
Wilders, who says he is on a mission against the "Islamization” of the country, has promised to shut Dutch borders to Muslim immigrants, close mosques and ban sales of the Holy Qoran.
He also wants to follow the British and pull the country out of the European Union which it helped found.
Polls suggest Wednesday’s results could be close, with Rutte’s Liberal VVD returning as the largest party in the 150-seat parliament by a whisker.
The elections are being closely watched as a signal of the possible rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe, with key elections also planned this year in France and Germany.
"I want the Netherlands to be the first country which stops this trend of the wrong sort of populism,” Rutte told reporters just hours before the debate.
Monday’s debate, plus Tuesday’s vote-eve round-table with eight political party leaders, could yet sway the poll, one analyst told AFP, estimating some 60 percent of Dutch voters remain undecided.
Wilders has delighted in the chaos which erupted over the weekend when riot police moved in to disperse hundreds of protesters waving Turkish flags in Rotterdam, angered by a Dutch government ban on their ministers.
Rutte appealed for calm, but he has rejected Turkey’s calls to apologize for expelling one of its ministers who tried to attend the pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.
In one tense exchange, Rutte said it was time to de-escalate the crisis, but Wilders retorted "we must answer back. We must expel the Turkish ambassador and his staff.”
"There’s the difference between tweeting from the sofa and running a country. If you are in charge of a country you need to take sensible measures,” Rutte replied, to loud applause, in a jab at the Dutch MP known for his love of Twitter.
Tough coalition talks
Rutte repeated his vow never to work with Wilders again, accusing him of causing problems for the country after the MP triggered the collapse of an earlier coalition in 2012.
Telling Wilders he had become "radicalized” and was making "extreme statements” about Moroccan-Dutch citizens, Rutte insisted that "I will not cooperate with such a party. No, never, no.”
But Wilders retorted that he was standing up against "the liars and the legislators” and urged Dutch voters "if you want to take the Netherlands back for ourselves, then chase this man away and put me in the prime minister’s office.”