There were so many people determined on Saturday to snap a selfie with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the leader finally promised: “Everyone gets a photo.”
Mr. Rutte, who is head of the center-right Liberal party, had already spent three-quarters of an hour standing in a shopping center in the Dutch town of Barendrecht. These days however, every vote counts – perhaps more than ever before.
Mr. Rutte’s visit to the town just south of port city Rotterdam was part of a final spurt in this year’s Dutch election campaign. On March 15, the Dutch will vote for a new parliament, marking 2017’s first general election in Europe. France will choose a new president in two rounds of voting in April and May, while Germany’s elections will take place on September 24.
For many, the Dutch election is a litmus test on how far Europe could shift to the right, and whether the populist, anti-European political parties have any chance to lead. Britain’s vote last June to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump have been serious causes for concern in many European capitals, not the least for Brussels, where the E.U. parliament and executive body, the European Commission, are both seated.
Marine Le Pen has said the Brexit vote last year would set in motion “a domino effect” in Europe.
The Dutch anti-immigrant and anti-E.U. Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, is leading in some polls and running second in others, although he has lost ground over the past two weeks. Mr. Wilders was a Liberal party member of parliament until he split off in 2004, eventually founding his own party in 2006. He is now calling for the Netherlands to leave the European Union, close the border to asylum seekers and ban the Koran, Islam’s holy book.
In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing extremist Front National, is expected to make it into the second round of voting. She, too, seeks to remove France from both the E.U. and the euro single-currency zone, which is comprised of 19 European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. In Germany, the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD), led by Frauke Petry, is expected to receive more votes in the parliamentary election in September than it did four years ago, though it still has little chance of beating the more established parties.
In January, populist leaders Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry and a host of other right-wing party heads convened in Koblenz, Germany, in an attempt to foster cooperation across borders – somewhat ironically, in the name of anti-E.U. nationalism. At the time, Ms. Le Pen said the Brexit vote last year would set in motion “a domino effect” in Europe. In response, mainstream political leaders across the E.U. have vowed not to let that happen by winning back voter trust.
Indeed, trust was the name of the game for Mr. Rutte on Saturday. The 50-year-old prime minister came across as approachable, wearing jeans and sneakers and appearing without bodyguards. Over the past year, confidence in his Liberal party has waned, with a large segment of the Dutch population still undecided about who they will vote for. And those who do know appear to like the prime minister a lot less than they did five years ago.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rutte appeared to be in good spirits, perhaps because his party once again has a good chance of remaining the strongest force in Dutch politics, despite an expected loss of votes. The Liberal party overtook Geert Wilders’ party in an aggregated poll of several election surveys published on Sunday, coming in at 16 percent to the Party for Freedom’s 15 percent.
Mr. Rutte sees the small edge as a signal in the fight against populism, which is gaining ground in many European countries. “This is a chance to stop the trend,” he said.
Nevertheless, some have claimed that the prime minister has allowed himself to be pushed to the right by Mr. Wilders. In a newspaper ad taken out by Mr. Rutte in January, his somewhat ambiguous message was: “Behave normally, or go away.” On the one hand, the ad seemed to address immigrants who come to the Netherlands but reject the country’s cultural values. On the other hand, many saw the lost voters drifting toward Mr. Wilders as the target audience.
This kind of sophisticated ambiguity is what many expect from Mr. Rutte, who is widely regarded as a political wunderkind, having become the Dutch Undersecretary for Social Affairs and Employment in 2002 at the age of 35. He assumed the leadership of the The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) four years later and led a minority government between 2010 and 2012. At the time, he heavily relied on parliamentary support from Geert Wilders’ party. The constellation, however, fell apart after Mr. Wilders refused to back austerity measures in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which had pushed the Dutch economy into recession.
Even if Mr. Wilders’ party receives the most votes this time around, he would likely be prevented from forming a government coalition by a majority of his rivals. All main political parties, including that of Mr. Rutte, have announced that they will not form a government with the Party for Freedom.
Mr. Rutte’s focus has been on the “hard-working Dutchman.” While he was still considered popular in his first term as premier, he can no longer depend on the advantage of incumbency today. Last summer, Mr. Rutte was forced to apologize for having broken several campaign promises, including a pledge to cut taxes.
While some Dutch voters still resent him for that, others have praised his pragmatism. He will have to apply some of that pragmatic political skill again soon, as his party will most likely have to enter into a coalition with three or four parties in order to form a government.
However, at least Mr. Rutte was able to keep his promise in Barendrecht: after an hour and a half, everyone who asked had left with a selfie with the prime minister.
Elisabeth Atzler has been a banking correspondent of Handelsblatt since 2012 and has studied in the Netherlands. Handelsblatt Global editor Gilbert Kreijger, who has covered three general elections in the Netherlands, contributed to this article. To contact the author: email@example.com