Beginner's guide to Dutch elections

Sophie MIGNON
Amid the rise of populist and far-right parties, the Dutch will be the first to cast ballots ahead of presidential votes in France, and legislative polls in Germany

The small lowlands country of The Netherlands holds a general election on Wednesday, the first in a series of national polls that could reshape Europe's political landscape.

Away from the tourist delights of the tulips, windmills and clogs, here is a beginner's guide to the Dutch elections:

- What is at stake? -

Amid the rise of populist and far-right parties, the Dutch will be the first to cast ballots ahead of presidential votes in France in April and May, and legislative polls in Germany in September.

After the surprise Brexit vote and Donald Trump's win in the US presidential election, far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders is hoping for his best result to date.

- Who is running? -

The vote has essentially come down to a race between Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) and outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberals (VVD).

But there are 28 parties -- a post World War II record -- competing for the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house of parliament. A total of 76 seats are needed for a majority.

Thanks to a complex system of proportional representation, even small parties can get seats, enabling them to play an important role in shaping the make-up and viability of the next government.

Wilders has slipped after topping the polls for weeks, but smaller parties like the green GroenLinks have also been wooing voters away from some of the country's long-established parties.

- The main campaign themes -

In recent days, the elections have been overshadowed by a diplomatic row with Turkey which has thrust issues of integration and immigration back up the agenda.

Wilders's anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform was boosted late last year by Europe's worst refugee crisis since the 1940s and a slew of attacks by Islamic jihadists.

His one-page party manifesto vows to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, close mosques and ban the sale of the Koran.

In an overt bid to win over some of his supporters, other parties have increasingly insisted on bolstering what they call "Dutch values."

Earlier this year, Rutte told citizens with immigrant backgrounds to "act normally" and adapt to Dutch norms or "leave".

But for many Dutch the most important questions are the economy, jobs, pensions and caring for a greying population.

- How do elections work here? -

The Dutch lower house -- Tweede Kamer -- says on its website that "no party has ever received more than 50 percent of the votes."

"All governments since World War II have been coalition governments, supported by two or more parties to form a majority."

Once the official results are announced on March 21 by the elections commission, the new parliament will be installed on March 23.

A point person, known as an "informateur", investigates which parties could form a coalition, and presides over negotiations between the party leaders to draw up a programme of policies.

These discussions can take weeks or even months. Dutch media has reported it takes on average three months for a new government to take office.

Once a programme has been set out, a person known as a "formateur" begins drawing up the possible new cabinet. The reward for this arduous task is often the top job -- becoming prime minister.

- Who could join new coalition? -

Even though Wilders had been leading the polls for months, he has dropped back to second place behind Rutte.

Most party leaders have vowed not to work with him. So even if the PVV were to emerge as the largest party, it would likely be excluded from government.

Analysts say Rutte's VVD could join up with the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the progressive D66 seeking to reach the magic 76 needed for a majority.

But here GroenLinks or even some of the smaller parties may find themselves with the weighty role of kingmaker.

Parliamentary seats are attributed according to a complicated formula based on the number of votes cast divided by the 150 available parliamentary seats, which determines that year's electoral quota.