Dutch support for far-right slips on election eve

Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) saw off the challenge from the party of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders in the Dutch general election

Dutch politicians traded barbs late Tuesday in a televised debate just hours before keenly-watched elections, as final opinion polls hinted support for far-right leader Geert Wilders was slipping.

Tuesday night's showdown, which followed Monday's head-to-head clash between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his main rival Wilders, could prove crucial in swaying a large number of undecided voters in The Netherlands, which is embroiled in a bitter row with Turkey.

"I'm going to watch the debate closely in order to be clear about my decision and whom I'm going to choose," first-time voter Giorgio Frans, 20, told AFP.

Surveys released just hours before polling stations open on Wednesday at 0630 GMT appeared to show Rutte pulling well ahead of Wilders, predicting his Liberal VVD party would come first with 24 to 28 seats.

Wilders, who late last year was leading the polls with forecasts of more than 30 seats, was seen barely clinging on to second place with between 19 and 22 MPs in the 150-seat parliament, with more traditional Dutch parties such as the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democracy party (D66) snapping at his heels.

After last year's shock Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, the Dutch polls will be a measure of the strength of far-right and populist candidates ahead of other votes in Europe this year.

Rutte, bidding for a third term at the helm of the country of 17 million people, has been highlighting his six years as premier overseeing growth and stability, in one of the leading economies in the eurozone, and a founding father of the European Union.

- Leadership -

"When people look for leadership, they look to me," Rutte told Tuesday's debate.

Analysts said Rutte's handling of the crisis with Turkey, which erupted at the weekend, appeared to have boosted his image. He told AFP after the debate: "I think this evening we've convinced the voters."

Wilders has also leaped on the row in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hurled abuse at the Dutch accusing them of being like "Nazis" and raising the spectre of the Srebrenica massacre, when Bosnian Serb forces overrun a Dutch UN-protected enclave killing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Wilders -- who has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques and ban sales of the Koran -- has sought to capitalise on the chaos which rocked Rotterdam at the weekend when hundreds of Dutch-Turks protested a Dutch ban on Turkish ministers speaking at a pro-Erdogan rally.

"Netherlands does not belong to all. Do you hear me? The Netherlands belongs to the Dutch," Wilders said.

Referring to Saturday's scenes in the port city, he added: "Turks stood there with the Turkish flags, not waving a Dutch flag -- if they did that, then you could say The Netherlands belongs to us."

While Wilders was buoyed last year amid Europe's refugee crisis, many Dutch find his views unpalatable and most of the leading parties, including Rutte, have vowed not to work with him, which would complicate the formation of a new coalition government.

- Angry tweets, no solutions -

The leader of the Labour Party, Rutte's coalition partner in the outgoing government, hit out at Wilders in some of the fiercest exchanges of the night.

"You've been a member of parliament for 20 years, you've sent thousands of angry tweets, but you have provided zero solutions. You weaken and divide The Netherlands," said Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher.

A record 28 parties are vying for seats in parliament. Amid such a fragmented political landscape, observers say the next coalition could include four or five parties, meaning cobbling the next government together may to take months.

Jesse Klaver, the young and charismatic left-wing leader who heads GroenLinks, urged it was "time for a new leadership" and called for The Netherlands to welcome more refugees.

He denounced Rutte, accusing him of "enormous cynicism" for helping to strike a EU deal with Ankara to return migrants back to their own countries.

"I don't want to be proud of a country, which is proud of abandoning people, of closing its borders," said the 30-year-old whose party could win some 16 to 18 seats, handing him a powerful role as a kingmaker.