UTRECHT, Netherlands — Just hours before Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in an election whose results will ricochet across Europe, many people couldn’t make up their minds.
Faced with a dizzying 28 political parties and worried that the Netherlands’ coalition-driven system means that both center-right and center-left leaders push the same policies, as many as 40 percent of voters were still undecided heading into the elections.
It might be a campaigner’s dream: a true last-minute opportunity to capture ballots. But the unsettled political arena is also a warning sign that voters across Europe are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo ahead of pivotal votes this year in France, Germany and possibly Italy. The outcomes will shape the direction of the continent for years to come.
Anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders, who recently called some Moroccans “scum,” is poised to come at or near the top of the polls Wednesday, a development that would hearten anti-immigrant leaders in neighboring nations. But he is unlikely to find enough partners to govern, so a patchwork constellation of smaller parties will probably have to form an alliance instead.
“If I want to vote, it’s for social security, the welfare state,” said Amel Elbali, 28, a teacher who stopped to chat with campaigners from the surging pro-European Union Green-Left party in front of the main train station in Utrecht on Tuesday. He was debating between two left-wing parties, both of which could help blunt anti-immigrant concerns, he said.
“People are angry about the social welfare state. And the Muslims and Moroccans, they’re blamed for everything,” said Elbali, whose mother is Dutch and father is a Moroccan immigrant. He said that if economic problems were fixed, integration problems would probably ease across the nation of 17 million.
The tumult has created opportunities for insurgent parties such as the Green-Left party, an environmentally focused group that supports making changes to the European Union to make it more accountable to voters. The party – led by a charismatic 30-year-old, Jesse Klaver – has risen to fifth place in recent polls, enough support to make it a potential kingmaker in coalition talks. Those are expected to drag on for months.
“You see that people like Trump win, that there is Brexit, and meanwhile you hear that people here are afraid they can't pay for the doctor,” Klaver said Tuesday at the final debate.
Even as the debate got underway late Tuesday, party volunteers were still winning over on-the-fence voters as they campaigned door-to-door in Utrecht – an unusual, U.S.-style innovation for Dutch politics.
Still, if the fragmentation opens the doors for new parties to join the government, the likely exclusion of Wilders from power could strengthen him in the long run, analysts say.
“He can make the argument that all the parties are the same,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, a sociologist at Utrecht University who researches far-left and far-right parties. “Convergence is good news for him because that provides him with more space.”
Utrecht has a powerful part in Wilders’s own account of his evolving views about Islam, which he boiled down in this campaign to a single-page platform that calls for the banning of the Koran and the closure of all mosques. The firebrand politician got his start in political office here in 1997 as a city council member, living in a low-income, increasingly immigrant area of the city. He said there were “no-go” zones in his own neighborhood that were plagued with high crime.
The reality, observers say, is more complicated. The proportion of Dutch municipalities with between 10 percent and 25 percent non-Western migrants doubled between 2002 and 2015, according to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, a government research agency, fueled in part by the arrivals of asylum seekers from Middle East conflicts in recent years. Overall, non-Western immigrants rose from 7.6 to 12 percent of the Dutch population between 1996 and 2015.
In Utrecht, the large new Ulu Mosque, built 300 yards from the central train station in 2015, has turned into a local Rorschach test about whether the city is integrating its immigrants or being overrun by them. The mosque’s twin minarets can be seen from around the city, which has historically been the heart of Christianity in the Netherlands. Wilders and allies in parliament tried unsuccessfully to stop the construction.
“It’s a symbol of immigration’s success,” said Fleur de Bruijn, a campaigner for the Green-Left party in Utrecht who on Tuesday was handing out fliers on a plaza within sight of the mosque. “The movement in Europe and America is that you have right-wing populists. But people are saying, ‘Enough. Stop being afraid.’ ”
That may be a winning message for Susanna Groenendijk, 19, a social work student – at least if she makes up her mind to vote for the Greens.
“I didn’t expect I’d be so interested in the election,” she said, as she chatted with de Bruijn. She said she was waffling between the Green-Left party, which she thinks would do a better job on the environment, and the Labor Party, which she favors for its policies on funding university educations.
For now, Groenendijk said, “I’m undecided.”
Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.