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Rutte, Wilders face off ahead of Dutch election

March 14, 2017

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and rival MP Geert Wilders shared starkly different visions for the Netherlands in their first debate. The discussion touched on the country's relations with Turkey and future in the EU.

TV Debatte in den Niederlande Rutte Wilders
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ANP/R. de Waal

Just two days before the Netherlands decides its next parliament, the top two candidates for prime minister faced off in a heated televised debate.

Current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and top rival candidate Geert Wilders took part in a 30 minute debate Monday night that touched on a list of issues affecting the Dutch, including its recent row with Turkey, its future role in the EU and immigration.

The election is being closely monitored amid the rise of populist parties in Europe. Wilders, the leader of the populist Party for Freedom (PVV) has called for an end to the "Islamization" of the Netherlands, including a ban on Muslim immigration, closing mosques and banning sales of the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Wilders said the recent remarks from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the use of riot police to disperse protesters in favor of Erdogan have bolstered his position.

"You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders," said Wilders during the debate.

Rutte rebutted, "that's a totally fake solution. You want 'Nexit,' you want The Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost…don't do it."

Wilders does want The Netherlands to leave the EU, saying "we'd be boss in our own house again."

Rutte dismissed Wilders' desires, saying, "while we are focusing on the causes of the refugee crisis, you're wasting all your attention on your Koran police."

Neck and neck

Rutte, a member of the center-right Freedom and Democracy (VVD) vowed he would never work with Wilders. But the VVD and PVV are polling very close in the lead up to Wednesday's election. The VVD is currently projected to return as the largest party in the 150 seat Dutch parliament with between 23 and 27 representatives, and the PVV in second with between 19 and 23 seats. However, an analyst told French news agency AFP that 60 percent of Dutch voters are still undecided.

While the VVD has lost some luster, the PVV led the polls in January. Analysts believe the VVD's fall was due to Wilders media shyness, opting instead to primarily use Twitter to express his opinions.

The results in The Netherlands are being closely monitored by nearby France, Germany and Norway, all set to have elections later in 2017. All three nations are seeing a rise in populism in their respective countries.  

kbd/bw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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