Voters head to the polls in the Netherlands on March 15 in the first of several elections across Western Europe likely to test EU unity amid a wave of nationalist and populist sentiment sweeping the continent.
Balloting in the densely packed, coastal nation of 17 million people rarely attracts attention outside of the country, but this time it's different.
The battle between center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders -- a populist who has campaigned on banning the Koran, shutting mosques, and pulling the country out of the European Union -- has increased the focus on the vote, especially with far-right parties showing well in opinion polls in France and Germany, where elections are due later this year.
Populist parties in Europe are seizing on the nationalist sentiment that spurred two surprising outcomes in recent balloting.
First there was Britain's decision to leave the European Union in the so-called Brexit vote in June, sending shockwaves through Europe. That was quickly followed by the surprise victory of U.S. President Donald Trump in November, ushering in his "America First Foreign Policy" in Washington.
Those results have left many in Europe wondering whether the EU can survive the current wave of antiestablishment sentiment.
Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) led in opinion polls for much of the campaign, though Rutte's Liberals (VVD) appeared to erase the deficit as the race wound down.
A number of estimates this week said more than half of voters were still undecided.
In a heated debate March 13, the two candidates traded verbal punches in a last-ditch effort to sway voters.
'Wrong Kind Of Populism'
Rutte accused Wilders of using "voodoo numbers" and offering "fake solutions" to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment, while Wilders scolded his opponent for breaking election promises and called him the "prime minister of foreigners."
Hours before the debate, Rutte told reporters in Rotterdam that he hoped the Netherlands would provide an example for other European countries to stop embracing "the wrong kind of populism."
Rutte did not specify what the right kind of populism was, but the elections in the Netherlands come with the National Front's Marine Le Pen seemingly poised to reach a runoff in the French presidential election on April 7, and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) rising in popularity ahead of fall elections that could topple Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has emerged as one of Europe's leading voices against rising nationalism.
"Just say an anti-EU populist leader won in Holland, it would embolden, no doubt, populist movements certainly in France, and perhaps a little in Germany," said Judy Dempsey, nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (file photo)
Opinion polls were turning in favor of Rutte's Liberals in the waning days of the campaign. Three surveys published two days before the election put his party slightly ahead of Wilders’ Freedom Party, while one showed a virtual tie.
With 28 parties contesting the election and no single party likely to win more than 17 or 24 seats in the 150-member lower house, analysts said there was a good chance Wilders will be shut out of power once governing coalition talks start as other parties have ruled out including his party in the government.
"We continue to expect the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy of the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte to emerge as the largest party in parliament after the election," said Pepijn Bergsen, lead analyst for Germany, Netherlands, and Austria at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"However, this will be in a fragmented political landscape, with no party likely to gain more than 20 percent of the vote and four or five parties being necessary to form a majority government."
Rutte's VVD is currently the senior partner in a majority coalition government with the Labor Party. The administration has been pro-EU and fiscally prudent in its moves, though it has toughened talk on liberal immigration policies as Wilders' party gained popularity.
International concerns over the election have been stoked over the past week when a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey spilled onto the streets of Rotterdam, prompting riot police to use water cannon on protesters.
Keeping A Close Eye On The EU
Turkey said on March 13 that it was halting all high-level political discussions with the Netherlands and that as far as Ankara is concerned, an agreement with the EU to help hold back a flood of Asian migrants has ended.
Ankara's move comes amid a growing dispute with the Netherlands and Germany over their refusal to allow Turkish government ministers to stage political rallies on their territory and could fuel the populist backlash that has buffeted anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe.
Bergsen noted that, although the United Kingdom's Brexit vote and Trump's victory have increased international attention on the Dutch elections, anti-immigration and anti-Islam sentiment aren’t new in the country's politics.
"The European migrant crisis has provided a boost to these forces but did not create them -- they were already there," he said, pointing out the success of Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who, days before elections in 2002, was gunned down by a man who claimed to be protecting Muslims from persecution.
Though the elections are unlikely to result in a sharp turn in Dutch policies away from the EU, Steven Blockmans, a policy expert with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, said he expects the government that emerges from the vote will keep a close eye on the 28-nation bloc.
That scrutiny, he said, is unlikely to stop the Dutch Senate from voting to approve the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, already approved by the lower house, the final hurdle before the deal, which was signed in March 2014, can enter into force.
The Netherlands is the only EU country that still hasn't ratified the Association Agreement with Ukraine after 61 percent voted against it in a citizen-driven, nonbinding referendum in April 2016.
"I don’t see the Netherlands developing into a destructive force within the European Union, not more than the Euroskeptic attitude that it already has," Blockmans said.