Dutch election will test far-right ardor in Europe

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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the Netherlands, voters head to the polls tomorrow, in Europe’s first big and closely watched election of the year. An ardent nationalist, running on an anti-immigrant agenda, is bidding for the prime minister’s office, hoping to lead the way for similar candidates in France and Germany.

The election also comes amid an escalating war of words between the Dutch government and Turkey over a referendum next month that could give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vast new powers.

Just today, Erdogan accused Dutch troops of complicity in the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. That’s a charge which a Dutch court had previously cleared.

Our special correspondent, Malcolm Brabant, traveled throughout Holland for us, and he brings us this report.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Convicted of inciting discrimination, he’s labeled Moroccans as scum, one of Europe’s most divisive politicians, Geert Wilders is hoping to emulate Donald Trump’s anti-establishment victory, while maintaining a Dutch veneer.

GEERT WILDERS, Leader, Freedom Party: I’m no Mr. Trump. I am my own man. And so we are having a Dutch campaign here about Dutch issues, and not about America.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The would-be prime minister’s manifesto is only one-page long. It’s a full-frontal attack on Islam.

GEERT WILDERS: It certainly is a threat. It’s an existential threat. I’m not talking about all the Muslims, but the Islamic ideology is an ideology of violence, of hate, of submission, and not of assimilation. And I believe Islam and freedom are incompatible.

So, if we want to stay free countries also for our children and grandchildren in the future, we have to have less Islam in our societies, because the more it dominates and the stronger it becomes, then the less freedom we will have.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This mosque in Rotterdam is the country’s biggest. If Wilders gets his way, every mosque will be closed down, the Koran will be banned, as will Islamic scarves in public places.

At Friday prayers, security guard Rocalita Angelista celebrated his conversion to Islam. According to a recent survey, most Dutch people estimated that 20 percent of the 17 million population were Muslims. The true figure is 6 percent.

ROCALITA ANGELISTA, Netherlands: You cannot change us. We are here, and maybe we were not born here, but some of us, my son, my daughter, is born here, because they are Dutch. I think Wilders will lose.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the end of Friday prayers, there was a collection to raise money for a new mosque in the city of Utrecht. This expansionism concerns voters in the picturesque southern town of Valkenburg, where Wilders made a rare pre-election appearance.

TOM KEIDENER, Student: A lot of criminals are Muslims. It’s not that all Muslims are bad, but a lot of them have that ideology, and they want to take over the Christians, and they think that Muslims are better and the rules of Sharia have to be the rules of — are more important than rules of the law, the Dutch law.

MIEPIE BRINKHUIS, First Woman (through interpreter): I’m not worried about an attack, but I am most worried about the influence of our way of life. And we have to stop that.

FERRY SCHIPPERS, Netherlands: Wilders is like a hot air balloon. He is just telling the people what they want to hear. We have to keep moving in the right direction. And with Wilders, we are moving in the opposite direction. We are going backwards.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We have met Ferry Schippers before, on the front line of Europe’s immigration crisis. He was leading the Doctors Without Borders team on board the aid ship Aquarius last summer, rescuing African migrants off the Libyan coast and taking them to Italy.

FERRY SCHIPPERS: A good society is a society that take care of the weak. It’s kind of strange, because we used to be such a tolerant country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We have come to Maastricht to get a reaction to Wilders’ plan to reject all asylum seekers, ban immigrants from Muslim countries, and close down asylum centers.

Nader Elawa is from Damascus. He landed on the Greek island of Lesbos in December 2015 and managed to reach the Netherlands just before the migrant trail to Northern Europe was closed down.

NADER ELAWA, Refugee (through interpreter): The refugees are somehow very peaceful, and I don’t think they will make any problem for here. Me, I told you about myself. If something happen to Netherlands, I protect it with my life, because my Netherlands people, I found them they help me a lot. So why I must do something bad to them?

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is Rotterdam, whose prosperity is partly due to its location as the gateway to Europe. Geert Wilders wants the Netherlands to follow Britain out of the European Union, and there are sympathizers at the port.

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

MAN: Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40 percent of present jobs vanish? No, we’re not just going to sit and wait and do nothing.

NIEK STAM, Labor Union Organizer: Twenty percent of my membership will vote for Geert Wilders, but it doesn’t mean that they are racist. I mean, it’s a vote — it’s a protest vote.

People are fed about the government for the last couple of years. During the economic crisis, we pay a lot more taxes. They cut our pension benefits. It’s a protest vote. It’s not a solution vote.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But forming a government here is never smooth sailing; 28 parties are contesting the election. A coalition of four or five is needed to create a government. Wilders’ big problem is that no one wants to get on board with him.

According to the latest opinion polls, Geert Wilders is no longer in the lead, and has dropped back to second place. But after the surprise results in the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election, the sitting Dutch prime minister is not taking victory for granted.

Prime minister Mark Rutte called on the Dutch to set an example to voters in France and Germany, where right-wing nationalists are flourishing ahead of elections later this year.

MARK RUTTE, Prime Minister of the Netherlands: These elections are crucial. Let us stop the domino effect right here, this week, this Wednesday, the domino effect of the wrong sort of populism winning in this world.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Are there any circumstances under which you would enter into a coalition partnership with Geert Wilders?

MARK RUTTE: The answer is, no, we won’t do that. The reasons are that he — at — when the crisis was the deepest in 2012, he ran away from responsibility.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Political scientist Jean Tillie believes that, although Rutte finds Wilders’ views on Islam distasteful, it’s a mistake not to engage with him.

JEAN TILLIE, Political Scientist: We saw it in England in the Brexit. People were ignored, and look what happened. We saw it in America. People were ignored, and look what happened. So, don’t ignore people when they have strong feelings.

You are not obliged to incorporate them in the political system, but you cannot ignore a very large group of people consistently for 30 years.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The election is taking place amid an escalating dispute with Turkey. The Netherlands prevented two Turkish ministers from addressing a rally in Rotterdam, backing President Erdogan’s referendum request for greater powers.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish President (through interpreter): Some European countries have become hostages in the hands of racist and fascist parties. We have been pointing to the rise of fascism, racism and xenophobia in Europe and warning our interlocutors about this issue.

MARK RUTTE: Turkey is a proud country. But, also, the Netherlands is a proud country. We will never negotiate under threats.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Dutch analysts believe that Mark Rutte’s handling of this crisis could boost his chances. With so much at stake, rarely has there been this level of tension beneath the Netherlands’ tranquil facade.

For the PBS NewsHour I’m Malcolm Brabant in Amsterdam.

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