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Dutch prime minister: Voters must stop Trump-style ‘chaos’ from coming to the Netherlands

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, center, talks with voters and the media during a campaign event in Amsterdam. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

AMSTERDAM — When Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday, far-right leader Geert Wilders is hoping they will deliver the West its third major populist jolt in less than a year — and the first since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in November.

But there are growing indications that Trump may be more hindrance than help to Wilders’s campaign.

After leading the polls for nearly all of last year and seeming to be in commanding position as 2017 got underway, Wilders’s Freedom Party has fallen sharply in the past two months — a period that coincides with the tumultuous dawn of the Trump presidency.

In surveys conducted in recent days, the Freedom Party has even fallen out of first place, slipping just behind the center-right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

In the hyper-fragmented world of Dutch politics — there will be 28 parties on the ballot Wednesday — analysts emphasize that the campaign remains fluid, and Wilders could still wind up on top. Wilders’s own backers say they believe fervently that the polls are underestimating his support, just as they did with Trump in the United States.

But increasingly, his competitors are using unfavorable comparisons to the U.S. president to attack Wilders and to try to halt the populist wave that began with Britain’s vote last June to exit the European Union.

“This is our chance to stop this trend,” Rutte said in a brief interview as he recently campaigned at an Amsterdam shopping mall. “There’s still a big risk that [Wilders] will be the biggest party. But we’ve seen the chaos after Brexit and after the elections in America. And we can’t have that here.”

Trump is deeply unpopular in the Netherlands, as he is across Western Europe. And although Wilders’s hardcore supporters are unlikely to be deterred by the comparisons to Trump, they may be effective among those who want to shake up the system — but not quite in the seemingly disordered way Trump has during his first weeks in office.

“Trump is the biggest antidote to Wilders,” said Geert Tomlow, a former Freedom Party candidate who still agrees with much of the party’s agenda. “People are aware that a Wilders type of person won’t give them the change they’re looking for.”

The drop in the polls for Wilders is just the latest evidence that a Trump backlash in Europe may be helping the political establishment fight back against the spread of nationalistic far-right movements across the continent.

In Germany — where parliamentary elections are due in September — the long-beleaguered center-left Social Democrats saw a pronounced poll bump after leader Martin Schulz went on the attack against Trump. In France — with a presidential vote just around the corner this spring — centrist Emmanuel Macron has been gaining on the far-right’s Marine Le Pen in measures of first-round support.

Trump and Wilders have much in common. Both delight in bashing the political establishment, and seek to mobilize voters with nativist, anti-immigrant appeals. Both also relish doling out bombast in 140-character bites.

“Wilders took a cue from the U.S. elections as to how Donald Trump has done this. The whole point is to denounce people, the media, the establishment,” said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies. “It’s politics on the basis of emotion. It’s completely devoid of content.”

Early in the campaign, Rutte seemed intent on stealing some of Wilders’s emotional thunder by mimicking his message. In an open letter, Rutte called on people in the Netherlands to “act normal or go away.”

The letter appeared aimed at immigrants who fail to integrate, referring to people who are “attacking our habits and rejecting our values, who attack gay people, who shout at women in short skirts, or call ordinary Dutch people racist.”

But in the recent interview, Rutte said the letter was targeted more broadly at anyone who fails to “act normal,” including those who take extreme positions that demonize immigrants and refugees.

Joost Sneller, a candidate for the centrist D66 party, said it was up to Wilders’s opponents not to try to co-opt his message — but to convince voters that there’s a better way.

As a small country, he said, the Netherlands has only succeeded when it’s engaged with the world with commerce, art and ideas.

“It’s open society versus closed society,” he said. “We’ve been strong by being open.”

That message, Sneller said, is getting out. His party has been gaining in the polls as Wilders and his allies decline, and has edged into a virtual tie for third place.

“What we hear on the doorstep is ‘We can’t have Trump-like things happen here,’” Sneller said. “It’s time to stand up.”

Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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