June 18th, 2024

Dutch exit poll points toward neck and neck race between far right, center left for EU elections


By Mike Corder And Raf Casert, The Associated Press on June 6, 2024.

A bicyclist passes a billboard for the European Election opposite the Concertgebouw concert hall Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Voters in the European Union are set to elect lawmakers starting Thursday June 6th for the bloc's parliament. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – An exit poll suggested Thursday that Geert Wilders’ far-right party and a center-left-alliance were neck-and-neck in Dutch elections for the European Union parliament.

In a possible harbinger of strong electoral gains for the hard right in the Europe Union, the exit poll indicated that Wilders’ Party for Freedom had made the biggest gains – winning seven seats, up from just one in the last parliament.

The poll of some 20,000 voters published by national broadcaster NOS predicted that the center left alliance would win eight of the 31 European Parliament seats up for grabs in the Netherlands.

Having sent shockwaves around Europe six months ago by becoming the biggest party in the Dutch national parliament, Wilders now wants to build on that popularity and set the tone for much of the bloc, with calls to claw powers back to national capitals and away from the EU so member states have more autonomy on issues such as migration.

Final results for the entire EU will be announced in Brussels after polls close Sunday night. The Netherlands is electing 31 of the 720 members of the European Parliament to five-year terms.

Paradoxically, like many hard right parties across the bloc, he wants to get more powers in the European Parliament, so he can weaken the EU institutions from within.

“You also need to have a strong presence in the European Parliament and make sure that, if necessary, we will be able to change the European guidelines in order to be in charge of our own immigration policy and asylum policy,” Wilders said after voting in The Hague.

That is why he was immediately calling for a broad alliance of hard right parties to break up the traditional coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists, pro-business Liberals and Greens.

“Making a larger group in the European Parliament,” Wilders said, “that gives us power to change all those European regulations in order to be more in charge of it ourselves – here in the national parliaments.”

Wilders, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and French opposition leader Marine Le Pen stand in stark contrast to much of the left and many center parties, which call for a more united European approach on anything from climate change measures to defense, arguing individual nations only have a weak voice on the global stage.

“It is important that the European Union is a good and strong partner,” said Gerard Kroon, a 66-year-old who works for the Hague municipality and voted in city hall for pro-Europe party Volt. “We have to get things done all together. Not only in Europe but in the Netherlands too.”

Since the last EU election in 2019, populist, far-right and extremist parties now lead governments in three EU nations, are part of governing coalitions in several others, and appear to have surging public support across the continent.

The Dutch center-right Christian Democratic Appeal party reported that its website was “temporarily less accessible” because of a distributed denial of service attack Thursday.

“On election day, we consider this an attack on free, democratic elections,” the party posted on X.

National broadcaster NOS reported that the site of Wilders’ party and the far right Forum for Democracy also were briefly down.

The EU elections are the world’s second-biggest exercise in democracy behind the election in India, and the stakes are high.

Almost 400 million voters will be electing 720 members of the European Parliament from beyond the Arctic circle to the edges of Africa and Asia. The results will have an impact on issues ranging from global climate policies and defense to migration and geopolitical relations with China and the United States.

There was some early voting in some countries, but the Netherlands is the only EU country to start its single-day vote so early, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday and the rest of the EU nations over the weekend. Europe-wide results will be announced Sunday night after all member states have completed voting.

Since the last European elections in 2019, war has broken out on the fringe of the bloc following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country that desperately wants to join the EU.

A founding member, the Netherlands was long unwavering in its support of EU policies. Research from the Clingendael think tank, though, suggests dissatisfaction with the EU among Dutch people, and that while most believe that the Netherlands should remain in the bloc, many also believe it should be more self-sufficient.

While many voters are predicted to lurch to the right, the Christian Democrat-dominated European People’s Party, led by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is currently the EU legislature’s biggest bloc and is bound to be the coalition kingmaker when the dust settles on the election results.

In the Netherlands, Wilders’ PVV could build on its domestic success and surge, possibly overtaking the combined Labor Party and Green Left. Labor topped the Dutch EU Parliament election in 2019 with 19% of the vote for six seats while the Greens took 11% and three seats. Wilders’ party at the time only managed 3.5% and no seats.

Wilders and one of his likely coalition partners, the Farmer Citizen Movement, are popular among farmers in the Netherlands who have staged regular protests to call for an easing of EU legislation they say is crippling their livelihoods.

Wilders has in the past called for the Netherlands to leave the EU as Britain did, but his party’s manifesto for the election starting Thursday makes no mention of a so-called Nexit. Instead, it urges voters to back the PVV so it can change the EU from within, similar to plans of many other hard right parties across the bloc.

The number of members elected in each country depends on the size of the population, ranging from six for Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to 96 for Germany. In 2019, Europeans elected 751 lawmakers. Following the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU in 2020, the number of MEPs fell to 705. Some of the 73 seats previously held by British MEPs were redistributed to other member states.

The lawmakers, known as Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, can vote on a wide range of legislation covering banking rules, climate, agriculture, fisheries, security and justice. They also vote on the EU budget, which is crucial to the implementation of European policies, including, for instance, the aid delivered to Ukraine.

After the election, MEPs will elect their president at the first plenary session, from July 16-19. Then, most likely in September, they will nominate the president of the European Commission, following a proposal made by the member states. In 2019, von der Leyen narrowly won a vote to become the first woman to head the institution. She is seeking a second term.

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Raf Casert reported from Brussels.

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