Dutch goes to vote in cliffhanger election

Dutch goes to vote in cliffhanger election
Dutch goes to vote in cliffhanger election

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - (L-R) Dutch leader of Party for the Animals, Esther Ouwehand; the leader of Democrats 66, Rob Jetten; the leader of VVD, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius; and the leader of Christian Democratic Appeal, Henri Bontenbal attend the final debate between the lead candidates in the Dutch election before polls open today. — Reuters pic

THE HAGUE, Nov 22 — Dutch voters head to the polls today for a nail-biting election too close to call that will transform the country’s political landscape after Mark Rutte’s record 13 years in power.

Opinion polls have fluctuated wildly in the run-up to election day, with any one of the four top candidates in with a genuine shot at taking the helm of the EU’s fifth-biggest economy.

The stakes are high: the Netherlands punches above its weight in the European Union and on the world stage, a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and strict fiscal discipline in the eurozone.

Could the Netherlands elect its first woman prime minister? Dilan Yesilgoz, leader of the centre-right VVD party and successor to Rutte, is hoping to cap a meteoric career by clinching the top job.

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Born in Turkey, the charismatic 46-year-old has taken a hard line on immigration, pledging to drive down refugee numbers — a paradox to many as she arrived as a young girl following her asylum-seeking father.

Hard-working and media-savvy with a strong presence on Instagram, Yesilgoz has shrugged off the fact she would make history as the first woman PM but told AFP at a recent rally: “It’s about time.”

Yesilgoz immediately raised eyebrows by declaring a willingness to welcome anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders into a VVD-led coalition — a radical departure from Rutte’s policy.

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Wilders has sought to tone down some of his more hardline views, even saying there were “bigger problems” than bringing down asylum numbers and that he could put some of his anti-Islam positions “in the freezer”.

His PVV party appeared to have some momentum in the final days of campaigning, enjoying a big spike in the polls, and he seems likely to play some role in post-election jockeying.

A Wilders win would be a political earthquake felt beyond the Netherlands but it is unclear who would accept to join a PVV-led coalition, making forming a government tricky.

‘Saint Pieter’

Pieter Omtzigt, a maverick MP and whistleblower, has thrown a massive spanner in the works with the creation of a completely new party, the New Social Contract (NSC).

Dubbed “Saint Pieter” and considered by many a political Messiah for his crusade to clean up Dutch politics, he looked the clear favourite at one point.

But his support appeared to have dipped in the final days of the campaign, hampered by uncertainty over whether he actually wanted the top job.

He told AFP it was “secondary” who was PM, eventually relenting under daily questioning by saying he would lead a cabinet of experts, not politicians.

If Yesilgoz, Omtzigt and Wilders are all on the right of the political spectrum, former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans is hoping to build a left-wing wall to keep them at bay.

Architect of the EU’s Green Deal, the 62-year-old brings experience, climate credentials, and a safe pair of hands to the campaign.

He too saw a jump in support in the final days, with analysts saying left-wing voters were banding together with his Green/Labour party to prevent a right-wing coalition.

Immigration, cost-of-living, and a crippling housing crisis especially affecting young Dutch voters have been the main election topics.

Following Rutte’s premiership — tainted by so many scandals he became known as “Teflon Mark” for his ability to survive anything — the Dutch are also looking for a change in governing style, say experts.

In the fragmented Dutch “Polder” political system, no party is likely to win more than 20 per cent of the vote, meaning the coalition horse-trading begins immediately after the results.

It took 271 days for the last government to be formed.

For now, the suspense is total. “Anyone who knows who is going to win this election is lying through their teeth,” political analyst Julia Wouters told AFP.

“Anything and everything can still happen.” — AFP

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