- - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Jan Emmerink became a dockworker in Rotterdam in the 1960s when he was just 13. Today he is still working, including on weekends, to supplement the modest pension that supports his family.

“Without the extra money we’d starve,” said the 68-year-old from Spijkenisse, a small industrial town.

Mr. Emmerink harbored no doubts about who would receive his vote in Dutch parliamentary elections on Wednesday, a vote that has focused unaccustomed international attention on this small, prosperous, orderly country.

“Geert Wilders,” he said, referring to the controversial leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom. “I call him ‘Geert Trump.’ He does what the others don’t want to do — for the people.

“Here in the Netherlands we’ve been heading toward a silent civil war lately with all the visitors coming here from Syria and so on,” he added. “If they all rise up together, we’re going to have serious problems.”

Aside from the repercussions here, analysts will be sifting through Wednesday’s results to see if the populist, anti-globalist surge that helped fuel the Brexit vote and Mr. Trump’s upset victory last year still has legs. And the Dutch vote is also being seen across Europe as a curtain-raiser for critical national votes in France this spring and in Germany in the fall.

Polls — which tend to underestimate right-wing, anti-immigrant support — say Mr. Wilders’ party has a good chance of becoming the largest single group in parliament, though well short of a majority. While his rivals are expected to form a coalition government without him, the rise of the firebrand with his distinctive bleached-blond hair reflects rising Dutch skepticism of the EU and anxiety about globalization that has gripped much of Europe with the influx of Syrian and other Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian refugees in recent years.

Even many traditionally leftist Dutch voters fear that the country’s traditional liberal values are under threat from EU bureaucrats in Brussels and a Muslim minority that’s now around 6 percent of the population. Mr. Wilders would follow Britain’s lead and withdraw the Netherlands from the EU, while closing the country’s borders to Muslim immigrants, shuttering mosques and Islamic schools and banning headscarves and the Quran in public buildings.

He claims those moves would save $7.7 billion, according to his one-page campaign manifesto.

At the start of the year, opinion polls predicted Mr. Wilders would win up to 35 seats, or 10 more than his closest rival, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the conservative Party for Freedom and Democracy. Now the two men are running neck and neck, with each forecast to win 25 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament. Other parties, like the center-right Christian Democrats, meanwhile, are gaining ground. In the Dutch system, where the 150 lawmakers represent 12 or more parties, three or more parties usually form a government.

Mr. Rutte, who formed a government with Mr. Wilders seven years ago, has ruled out working with him again. University of Amsterdam political scientist Philip van Praag said that move undercut the Party of Freedom. Practical-minded Dutch voters tend to favor parties with a realistic chance of gaining power.

“A lot of voters agree with Wilders on a number of points, but they know he can’t realize his ambitions,” he said. “They’d rather vote for a party that doesn’t go so far in its views but can get into government and influence policy.”

The Trump conundrum

Mr. van Praag believed that aligning too closely with President Trump may backfire for Mr. Wilders. When Mr. Trump took office in January, Mr. Wilders was one of his most vocal supporters, calling the Republican a “breath of fresh air compared to the leftist dictatorships we have in Europe.” But many Dutch don’t agree.

“A small section of Wilders’ supporters are happy that Trump has been elected and trust him to make the world safer or tackle problems well,” said Mr. van Praag. “But a majority of Freedom Party supporters are very reserved about Trump. Wilders usually knows very well how his supporters feel and think, but on this point he’s miscalculated.”

Still, Mr. Wilders can take satisfaction in the fact that even mainstream Dutch parties are moving closer to his more skeptical view of immigration and the need to preserve Dutch identity. Mr. Rutte, for example, recently took out a full-page newspaper advertisement attacking newcomers who refused to conform to Dutch values.

The advertisement addressed “people who don’t want to adapt who attack gay people, who shout at women in short skirts, or label ordinary Dutch people racists.” The prime minister’s message to those who refused to comply was clear: “Act normal or go away,” the ad said.

Similarly, Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma told the audience of a televised debate last week that the country is “angrier, more scared and more insecure than ever.”

Mr. Wilders also is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery in this nation of 17 million, hitting another Trump-like note on the stump.

Ben Bouwers, a 64-year-old voter, sounded like many American Trump voters when he said he sympathizes with Mr. Wilders’ arguments, but that the candidate often goes too far in his rhetoric. Last year a court found Mr. Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination against Moroccans, whom he has repeatedly referred to as “scum.”

“The way he talks about certain people isn’t right,” said Mr. Bouwers, adding that he backed 50 Plus, a new party representing the interest of pensioners.

Mr. Wilders’ brand of identity politics has also sparked a counter-offensive, with new political parties springing up to represent the interests of migrant groups.

Sylvana Simons, a former TV newscaster, started her own faction, Artikel1, named after the first paragraph of the Dutch constitution, which forbids all forms of discrimination.

“We need politicians with the courage to speak for those voices on the other side,” said Ms. Simons. “We have seen a lot of politicians recently allow themselves to be seduced by the prospect of electoral gain and moved toward the Freedom Party. We think that with a strong political stance that connects with what is happening in society, we can take a stand against the xenophobia and hate.”

That stance has won over some voters.

“It’s not about what she’s against, it’s what she stands for,” said Simons supporter Kennet, a 57-year-old resident of Spijkenisse who declined to provide his last name. “She’s an example to show to others that she’s prepared to stand up for their interests.”

Another new group, Denk, set up by two former Labor Party lawmakers of Turkish extraction, is slated to win a seat or two.

For decades Labor had a stranglehold on the minority ethnic vote. But a poll last month found that 40 percent of Dutch Turks and 34 percent of Dutch Moroccans plan to vote for Denk, outnumbering prospective Labor voters 2 to 1. Aziz el Kaddouri, an analyst at the polling firm Opiniehuis, said minority Dutch voters feel as if they needed a stronger voice to stand up for their interests as Mr. Wilders has dominated the current political cycle.

“The Party for Freedom is the party of the angry white man,” said researcher Aziz el Kaddouri of the polling firm Opiniehuis. “You could call Denk the party of the angry brown man.”

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