The Hague: Millions of Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday in key elections overshadowed by a blazing diplomatic row with Turkey, with all eyes on the fate of far-right MP Geert Wilders.
Following last year`s shock Brexit vote, and Donald Trump`s victory in the US presidential polls, the Dutch general elections are being seen as a litmus test of the strength of far-right and populist parties ahead of other polls in Europe this year.
Amid the tussle between outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his anti-Islam, anti-immigration rival Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters remained undecided on the eve of the ballot.
Most polling stations were to open Wednesday at 0630 GMT, and close at 2000 GMT with exit polls expected shortly after.
"When people look for leadership, they look to me," Rutte told a final debate late Tuesday.
The leader of the Liberal VVD party, he is bidding for a third term as premier of the country of 17 million people — one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.Final polls released late Tuesday appeared to show Rutte pulling away from Wilders, crediting the VVD with coming top with 24 to 28 seats.
Wilders was seen as slipping yet again and barely clinging on to second place with between 19 and 22 MPs. That would however still be well up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) has in the outgoing parliament.
Seeking to mark his differences with the fiery, Twitter-loving Wilders, Rutte has been highlighting the country`s economic growth and stability during his six years at the helm.
Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gatecrashed the scene with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan unleashing a string of invective at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.
Rutte`s firm handling of the crisis — barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another — appears to have boosted his image here.
Snapping at the heels of Wilders were long-standing Dutch parties such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs, the polls said.
Both the CDA and D66 would be natural coalition partners for Rutte, who like most Dutch parties, has refused to work with Wilders, turned off by his incendiary rhetoric.
Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques and ban sales of the Koran. He also wants to pull the country out of the EU in a so-called Nexit.
While Wilders`s radical views have won support on the back of Europe`s refugee crisis, many Dutch still find them unpalatable.
"He has the right to voice his opinion, but he doesn`t give any solution to anything. He just creates fear," said 26-year-old Niels, who was watching the debate in a bar in The Hague.
And if the PVV does becomes one of the largest parties in parliament, Wilders may be hard to ignore.The Dutch pride themselves on their consensus politics, and reportedly it takes an average of three months of hard-bargaining to cobble together a coalition. Observers predict this time round however, four or even five parties may be needed to reach the 76-seat majority.
The leader of the Labour Party, Rutte`s coalition partner in the outgoing government, hit out at Wilders in some of the fiercest exchanges of Tuesday night.
"You`ve been a member of parliament for 20 years. You`ve sent thousands of angry tweets, but you have provided zero solutions. You weaken and divide The Netherlands," said Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher.
While traditional Labour has fallen sharply this year in the polls, the left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver are enjoying a huge boost.
The 30-year-old Klaver said it was "time for a new leadership" and called for The Netherlands to welcome more refugees.
He has boosted his party in the polls, and may win 16 to 18 seats, which could place him in a powerful kingmaker role.