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Dutch vote in key test for far-right

AFP  |  The Hague 

Millions of Dutch voters went to the polls today in an overshadowed by a blazing diplomatic row with Turkey, with all eyes on the fate of far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders.

Following last year's shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump's victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being closely watched to gauge support for populism in ahead of other elections this year.

Wilders voted in a primary school in The Hague, mobbed by television cameras, just after final opinion polls showed he was slipping behind the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

"Whatever the outcome of the today the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay," Wilders said, dismissing media comparisons with Trump.

"I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world," said Esther Zand, 52, who voted in the same school for Labour and against Wilders.

"He's a rather irritating gentleman," she added.

Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between the 28 parties in the running.

"When people look for leadership, they look to me," Rutte told the final debate yesterday watched by a record 3.3 million people according to broadcaster NOS.

Rutte 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 appeared to show Rutte consolidating a lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats -- well down on its 40 seats in the outgoing parliament.

After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging on to second place with between 19 and 22 MPs -- well up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.

Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU.

Snapping at his heels are long-standing parties the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs. Both parties would be natural coalition partners for Rutte.

"I am hoping for a strong centre" coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft, voting in a school where Rutte was expected later.

"But I'm afraid it's going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government," he told AFP.

Seeking to highlight 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 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, March 15 2017. 18:43 IST