They were hardly the headlines the Dutch ruling party would have wanted days before they contest general elections. First, crowds of protesters were water-cannoned in the streets of Rotterdam as a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey spilled onto the streets. Then, a prominent Republican official in the U.S. openly backed the ruling party’s main rival, nationalist firebrand Geert Wilders.
But even before the weekend’s turmoil, there was a general sense of incredulity at the international spotlight falling on this small European nation ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
“You really came all the way here?” Danny Kuijpers, an ornamental fish importer, asks this reporter in Kerkrade, a former mining town tucked away in the south. The NRC Handelsblad newspaper ran a story headlined: “Netherlands Is Very Interesting to Foreign Media.”
There are compelling reasons why the world’s attention is focused here. The first is Wilders, the longtime front-runner in the polls who is now neck and neck with the incumbent Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Of all the populists making waves across Europe, Wilders bears the most similarities to President Donald Trump, down to the bouffant of platinum blond hair and the rhetoric about the threat of uncontrolled migration.