The Hague [Netherlands], November 23: Dutch voters cast their ballots on Wednesday in a nail-biting election in which opinion polls show at least three parties - including the far right - could hope for the top spot.
A weighted poll published on the eve of the vote showed anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) tied for the lead with the conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"I hope I don't wake up tomorrow and we have Wilders as a prime minister. That's a nightmare," said Amsterdam resident Arie van der Neut, an architect, after he cast his ballot for the pro-European, center-left Volt party.
Only one thing is certain: the Netherlands will get its first new prime minister in over a decade, after Rutte resigned in July as his fourth coalition government collapsed, ending a 13-year tenure.
No party is on track to take more than 20% of the vote and with late polls showing Labour leader Frans Timmermans and Wilders making gains, and a large number of Dutch still undecided ahead of the vote, many scenarios are possible.
Although it is the tradition, there is also no guarantee that the party that wins the most seats would end up delivering the prime minister, in a country where the vote is split among many parties and coalition talks can take months.
Restricting immigration - the issue that triggered the collapse of Rutte's last cabinet - has been a key issue in the campaign, alongside climate change.
"It's been enough now. The Netherlands can't take it anymore. We have to think about our own people first now. Borders closed. Zero asylum seekers," Wilders said in a television debate late on Tuesday.
Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz, a Turkish immigrant tough on immigration and Rutte's successor at the helm of the VVD, who is hoping to become the country's first woman prime minister, responded: "I don't think anyone believes Wilders would be a prime minister for all. He's all about closing borders, excluding groups who he feels don't belong in the Netherlands." Lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt, a centrist who founded his own party after breaking with the Christian Democrats, is trailing slightly behind the first three in the latest polls, but will still likely play an important role.
At stake in the election is also whether voters in one of Europe's most prosperous countries are willing to continue funding climate policies, such as an expensive rollout of offshore wind farms amid a cost-of-living shock across the continent.
With the Netherlands a founding member of the EU, and Rutte a key operator in EU summits, fellow leaders will also be scrutinising the outcome as parties on the right have suggested seeking exemptions from the bloc's rules on agriculture and immigration.
Voting booths will close at 9pm (3pm ET), when national broadcaster NOS publishes its first exit poll.
A first-place finish for Wilders could lead the Netherlands to a hard-right coalition with a strong anti-immigration line, even though he has been seeking to soften his image in the hope of entering government.
A hard-right coalition could also soften plans to reduce livestock and fertilizer use, which are strongly opposed by farmers. If Timmermans is better placed, this could swing the next government toward the centre and more spending on climate policies and increase social spending, including raising the minimum wage.
Rutte will remain in a caretaker role until a new government is installed, likely in the first half of 2024.
Source: Qatar Tribune