Everything you need to know about the Dutch elections

Dutch voters will go to the polls on March 15, in an election that will be watched closely as a bellwether for populism in Europe.

The campaign — dominated by immigration and the Netherland’s membership of the European Union — has pitted two party leaders against each other, liberal incumbent Mark Rutte and and populist far-right figure Geert Wilders.

Rutte, Wilders and their parties are just about neck and neck, according to the Peilingwijzer poll of polls by Leiden University. But even if Wilders comes out with more votes that Rutte, he is unlikely to be the next Dutch prime minister.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who are the key players?

Wilders — branded a “Dutch Trump” — has enjoyed a meteoric rise from the political fringes to frontrunner.

He made his name internationally in 2008 with the provocative online film “Fitna,” which juxtaposed the aftermath of terrorist attacks with verses from the Quran.

As leader of the Freedom Party, Wilders wants to stop immigration from Muslim countries, close mosques, ban the burqa and imprison radical Muslims who have committed no crimes on a “preventative” basis.

Wilders, 53, has also promised a referendum on the Netherlands’ membership in the EU, following Britain’s Brexit vote last year.

His biggest threat is the incumbent Prime Minister Rutte, who has touted the country’s economic stability under his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

The European Commission forecasts the Dutch economy will grow steadily at around 2% this year, outperforming the EU as a whole.

Rutte, 50, is seeking a third term in power — his party won a second term in 2012 after forming a coalition with the center-left Labour Party, which has lost significant support this time around.

But Rutte appears to have pushed himself to the right to compete with Wilders, rather than branding himself as Wilders’s opposite.

In January, Rutte wrote an open letter in which he said immigrants who did not assimilate in the Netherlands should “behave normally, or go away.”

While he does not agree with Wilders on pulling out of the EU, he has said the concept of an ever closer union — an EU rallying cry for nearly 30 years — was “dead.”

What are the key issues?

Asylum seekers and immigration, membership of the EU, and crime and security are the most important issues in the election.

The electorate has also focused on civil liberties — issues such as privacy, freedom from racial profiling and police checks in the streets — this comes on the back of an anti-terror drive.

“These issues are all related. Asylum seekers, civil rights and freedoms are of course related to the EU. Crime and terrorism, and talk of taking back control — all these issues are right-wing issues that have completely dominated discussion. There has been little space for left wing issues,” explains Andre Krouwel from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

But beyond the Netherlands’ borders, support for Wilders is of concern, especially if he does find a way to the premiership and holds his promised referendum.

After Britain voted to pull out of the bloc, some other member countries have threatened to hold similar votes over concerns such as migration.

Source: Angola Press News Agency