Geert Wilders out in the cold in Dutch election scrum

As voters turn to the right, the Greens are hoping to profit from the woes of a discredited Labour party

At the “election market” in Gouda, behind the town’s gable-fronted cheese museum, the Netherlands’ kaleidoscope of parties are making a last push to catch floating voters. Passers-by are spoiled for choice: nine groups are represented, all with seats in parliament, from the governing Liberal and Labour parties to the Animal Rights party, complete with panda-print scarves and a man strumming campaign songs on a guitar.

Notably, the three leading contenders – prime minister Mark Rutte’s VVD, the Christian Democrats (CDA), and Geert Wilders’s Freedom party (PVV) – are all on the right, suggesting that the Dutch are turning away from their tradition of liberal, progressive politics. The Labour party (PvdA) has paid a heavy price for going into coalition with the right-wing Liberals four years ago and pushing through an austerity programme that hit its traditional voter base.

Dutch elections: the Geert Wilders effect explained

The Labour MP Mohammed Mohandis, who is seeking re-election, admits many voters feel alienated: “Some voters think we did the right thing taking responsibility in government, but others say, what are you doing with the VVD? You hear both.” Labour now has 38 MPs, but may be reduced to single figures. Mohandis admits he faces an uphill task to be re-elected under a proportional system where voters choose a party, not an individual MP.

One voter, 31-year-old Rinus Wouterse, says party leader Lodewijk Asscher, who is social affairs minister in the current government, is to blame for the party’s poor showing. “He’s made such a mess of integration policy. It was a bad idea to choose him as party leader. He’s not charismatic, he’s not a leader. In the debates he’s been invisible.”

Leftwing hopes are pinned on the green party, GroenLinks, which has run an upbeat campaign with its 30-year-old leader, Jesse Klaver, at the forefront. Party activist Carolijn Hofte says many young voters are attracted to the greens’ message: “There’s a strong chance that we’re taking votes from the PvdA, but we also hope people who are voting for the first time will choose GroenLinks because we’re a party for the future.”

With only days to go, the race is becoming a scrum. Far-right populist leader Wilders has seen his once commanding lead in the polls wiped out, but his main rival, Rutte, has been unable to capitalise on this. Rutte’s liberal VVD party has a narrow lead of around 25 seats with Wilders’s PVV on 22. But the chasing pack are closing in: the Christian Democrats and progressive liberal D66 group are on 19, followed by GroenLinks with 16.

Wilders is the big absentee, both on Gouda’s election market and in the campaign. He has boycotted debates and TV interviews, but continues to exert a huge influence. He has been calling for parliament to be recalled to debate the Turkish government’s attempts to hold campaign rallies in the Netherlands in relation to an upcoming referendum, during the week before the Dutch election. But even if he wins most seats, he has no hope of going into government, as all his main rivals have ruled out forming a coalition with him.

Elizabeth Wiztier, out shopping with her five-year-old daughter, is considering voting VVD to stop Wilders finishing top of the poll. “The signal that would send out to the rest of the world is shocking,” she said. “I believe in Europe and that we need to work together.”

But if the other parties continue to close the gap, she may switch to the CDA or even GroenLinks.

With such tiny margins between the parties, this Dutch election is going right down to the wire.

Gordon Darroch in Gouda

The GuardianTramp

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