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A guide to the Netherlands’ big election

The flag of The Netherlands flies near the beach in The Hague on March 3. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

The Dutch aren't used to people caring about their elections. The Hague was long known as a bastion of Western European liberal attitudes and consensus politics — not exactly the stuff that sells newspapers. But things have changed, and thanks to the rising fortunes of a far-right superstar, a bizarre spat with the government of Turkey and the increasingly perilous state of the European Union, people are watching this year's vote with bated breath.

The country's parliamentary vote takes place on Wednesday, and it may signal a big shift for the Netherlands, if not the continent. But what exactly should you expect? Here's the WorldViews guide.

How does the system work?

On Wednesday, Dutch voters will go to the polls to vote in elections that will decide the makeup of the Tweede Kamer, the lower and most important house of the Netherland's parliament. It's a proportional representation system that uses party lists, so people won't be voting specifically for candidates: Instead, they will vote for a party. Depending on how many votes they get, the party will then be given a percentage of the 150 parliamentary seats (assuming they get more than 0.67 percent of the vote, the threshold required for one seat).

Whatever party can command a majority of 76 seats in parliament — either on its own or through a coalition — will form the Dutch government, though sometimes minority governments are possible. Conventionally, the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer will be the prime minister.

The results of the vote are expected by early Thursday morning local time, which could mean Washington gets them as early as late Wednesday evening. Turnout is likely to be high by American standards — Dutch citizens are automatically registered to vote and the last election had turnout of 74.6 percent.

So who are the main candidates to be prime minister?

Given the fractured nature of the Dutch political scene and the uncertainty of coalition building (more on that later), it's a little hard to say right now. However, polls do suggest that Mark Rutte, the current prime minister and leader of the pro-business People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), is one likely scenario.

Other parties that are doing well in the polls include the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), a center right party led by Sybrand van Haersma Buma, and the Democrats 66, a progressive party led by Alexander Pechtold. The center left Labour party (PvdA), traditionally one of the three strongest along with the VVD and the CDA, is performing noticeably more poorly than usual this time around. It's leader is Lodewijk Asscher.

Then, of course, there's the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV), which is led by the mercurial Geert Wilders. That party had been doing very well in the polls until recently, when it started to slip.

Ah, this Geert Wilders. He's the Dutch response to Trump, right?

It may be more accurate to say it the other way around: Trump is the American response to Wilders.

The bleached-blonde, Twitter-loving Dutch firebrand has been involved in politics since the early-1990s. However, he only really became internationally known as a critic of immigration and Islam in 2004, when he received death threats that mandated 24/7 police protection and government safe houses (he's lived under these remarkable security procedures ever since).

Wilders formed the PVV in 2006. It's virtually a one-man show, with Wilders technically its sole member and definitely its leader, and it takes a harsh line on immigration, Islam, and Euroscepticism. The PVV been a pretty powerful force in Dutch politics for the past few elections, even briefly becoming an informal part of a Rutte's 2010-2012 coalition government before pulling out, prompting its collapse.

Wilders has certainly dominated headlines before the vote and there is a sense that, while he was once on the fringes, he's now part of a broader international group of right-wing populists that might also include Trump, but also Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party, France's National Front, or the Alternative for Germany party. That said, there are plenty of differences in rhetoric, style and history among these groups too.

The PVV is expected to do well in Wednesday's vote, perhaps even winning the most votes overall. But most people are discounting the idea that Wilders could be the next Dutch prime minister and he may well not even have a spot in any government formed at all.

But how could someone win the most votes and not become the prime minister?

The Dutch system is very different from the U.S. presidential system or the British first-past-the-post system, two ways of practicing politics that tend to produce two-party systems and clear, one-party governments. Getting more than 76 seats in the Tweede Kamer is virtually impossible, so every Dutch government since 1945 has need to form a coalition to function.

The process of forming the government is long and complicated — in some ways, it might be as important as the vote itself. And so far, almost all of the large or medium-sized parties have refused to work with Wilders, both because of his rhetoric and his previous coalition-ruining turn. This means that if the PVV were to gain the largest number of seats in parliament (say, 25 seats or so), it's still likely that whoever comes second would be able to form a coalition without him.

Is Wilders not important then?

Hardly. Wilders is thought to have already greatly influenced the tone of the election. Rutte in particular has been accused of shifting to the right, writing a provocative letter aimed at immigrants in January and engaging in a remarkable standoff with the government of Turkey this weekend.

It's also clear that even if Wilders doesn't speak for the majority of Dutch citizens, there are many who sympathize with his views on immigration. According to a Pew poll conducted last year, just 17 percent of the country thought diversity of ethnic groups or nationalities made their country a better place, one of the lowest scores of any country surveyed.

And while membership of the E.U. has not been a major issue in the election (while Wilders supports a “Nexit,” it wasn't his major issue) polls have shown that around half of the country would like a referendum on membership. It's hard to work out exactly why this sentiment is so strong. The country has a good economy and it has taken in a comparatively small number of immigrants and refugees compared to its neighbors.

So who will form a government?

Good question. That's pretty hard to predict right now. There are 28 parties running in this election, and they are remarkably ideologically diverse. For example, there's one party just devoted to pensioners (50PLUS) and another party that pledges to represent the “non-voters” (Niet Stemmers).

Polls suggest a total of six parties could gain more than 10 percent of the vote. This could mean that for a coalition government to function, it might need as many as five or six parties. That would be a clear break from recent elections, with have generally only involved two or three parties.

This is important as the greater the number of parties in a government, the more room for disagreement and the greater risk of political instability. It also means that the Netherlands may be left in legal limbo for a long time

In an email last week, Tom Louwerse, an assistant professor of political science at Leiden University, estimated that there are 4,095 possibilities for coalition governments this year. “It is quite likely that this year, even after the election it will be quite unclear as to what coalition might be formed, so at this stage it would be pure speculation,” Louwerse said.

What will people be watching for?

There are two major factors to watch for here.

  • First, how well the PVV does. If Wilders can substantially improve upon his recent lukewarm polling numbers, it will be yet another shock for the European elite, suggesting concerns about immigration run even deeper than are suspected. Though many parties have refused to work with him, they may have to reconsider in the wake of a great showing at the polls.
  • Secondly, how well the mainstream parties do. There was once a time when Dutch politics were dominated by three major parties: The VVD, the CDA and the PvdA. However, these parties have largely lost their power over votes during the past few decade and in the coming election the PvdA in particular looks set for a tough time. Dutch voters are known to make up their minds at the last minute and vote with coalitions in mind, but it'll be interesting to see if these parties decline continues. If it does, it may suggest that fringe parties like the PVV may have more room to operate in the future.

Read more:

Anti-immigrant anger threatens to remake the liberal Netherlands

The Dutch election is bigger than Geert Wilders

The peroxide-blond crusader who could soon top Dutch elections

The round-the-clock isolation of Geert Wilders has lasted over a decade