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Dutch PM Rutte issues open letter wooing right-wing voters

Dutch PM Mark Rutte has urged voters to stay the course and turn away from the far-right ahead of March's election. Polls show the anti-immigration Party for Freedom ahead.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte sought to attract voters away from right-wing lawmaker Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigration party is ahead in the polls ahead of March 15 national elections.

In an open letter published in several newspapers and on his center People's Party for Freedom and Demcoracy (VVD), Rutte presented the VVD as a champion of the status quo and stability. But Rutte also sought to address the concerns of voters drawn by Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), known for its stances against migration, the EU and Islam.

"Those people who refuse to adapt, and criticize our values" should "act normally or leave," Rutte wrote. He said he understood how "people think: 'if you so fundamentally reject this country then I'd prefer it if you leave.'"

Listen to audio 06:13

Inside Europe: Geert Wilders - the Dutch Donald Trump?

"In fact I have that feeling, too," he said, citing examples of such anti-social behavior like "harassing homosexuals, jeering at women in short skirts and labeling ordinary Dutch people as racists."

But without mentioning Wilders or his PVV, Rutte wrote that "the solution is not to lump everyone in the same bag, to insult or expel whole groups from our country."

Rutte's letter, directed at the "silent majority," also drew attention to "abnormal" behavior in other areas - from littering in public to abusing officials like train conductors or simply loitering in large groups. 

Wilders's PVV to become strongest single party?

Wilders has called for banning the Quran, closing mosques, stopping immigration and withdrawing the Netherlands from the EU. A court convicted Wilders last month of insulting and inciting discrimination against Moroccans. He is appealing the conviction.

Polls give Wilders a shrinking but substantial lead over Rutte, who has headed two coalition governments and steered the country's economy through the eurozone crisis. In a boost to Rutte, last week the state statistics office announced unemployment the biggest drop in unemployment in a decade. But as elsewhere in Europe, an influx of immigrants to the continent has boosted populist parties.

On Monday, Wilders called Rutte "the man of open borders, the asylum tsunami, mass immigration, Islamization, lies and deception."

Even if Wilders' party comes ahead in the March elections, he is not projected to win an outright majority. All the major mainstream parties have said they would not form a coalition government with the PVV.

The most likely scenario is a coalition government led by Rutte with as many as five parties and Wilders' PVV leading the opposition in parliament.

The vote in the Netherlands is being watched closely ahead of presidential elections in France in April and national elections in Germany in September, with anti-immigration and populist parties looking to change the political landscape.

They have been given a boost by the Brexit vote and US President Donald Trump's election. Joining populist leaders from France, Germany, Austria and Italy over the weekend, Wilders said this year would be "the year of the people ... the year of liberation, the year of the patriotic spring."

Watch video 04:13

Europe's rising right

cw/msh (AFP, AP)

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