Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders withdraw from leaders’ TV debate

Potentially decisive political discussion on Dutch TV cancelled over line-up dispute

Geert Wilders: along with Mark Rutte, he said he would take part in the RTL programme if no more than four party leaders participated. Photograph: Remlo de Waal/AFP/Getty

Geert Wilders: along with Mark Rutte, he said he would take part in the RTL programme if no more than four party leaders participated. Photograph: Remlo de Waal/AFP/Getty

 

In a sign of increasing nervousness in the run-up to the Dutch general election, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, and his far-right challenger, Geert Wilders, have pulled out of a leaders’ TV debate that could have proved crucial to their campaigns.

With Mr Wilders’ Freedom Party running marginally ahead of Mr Rutte’s Liberals in the opinion polls, a decisive blow or a poor performance in the debate – scheduled for later this month by the broadcaster RTL – could have been decisive in winning or losing the popular vote.

For months now, polling has suggested that either the Liberals or the Freedom Party will become the largest party in the 150-seat parliament on March 15th, although that will be only the first step in the lengthy process of negotiating a coalition to replace Mr Rutte’s outgoing Liberal-Labour government.

If Mr Rutte wins the popular vote, the likelihood is he will form a five-party coalition. If Mr Wilders emerges ahead, the other main parties have pledged not to work with him because of his anti-immigrant views – and if he cannot form a government, the initiative returns to Mr Rutte.

Both Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders had said they would take part in the RTL programme – billed as a debate between “potential prime ministers” – only if no more than four party leaders took part.

However, it emerged at the weekend that RTL had increased that four to five, inviting the leaders of the Christian Democrats, centre-left D66 and GreenLeft to take part because they are so closely grouped in the polls.

Party choice

“Choosing two of the three parties vying for third place would not have been reasonable,” said RTL’s deputy editor, Pieter Klein.

When Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders responding by pulling out, Mr Klein described it as “a real shame” – and said the broadcaster would abandon the debate altogether.

Both men will remember the weeks before the 2012 election when a surge in popularity for the Socialists was destroyed by the party’s leader, Emile Roemer, in one disastrous television debate on austerity and the economy.

So narrow is the margin between their two parties one month from polling day that Mr Rutte even revived his dormant Twitter account on Sunday to reiterate that there was “zero chance” his Liberals would form a coalition with the Freedom Party after the election.

Mr Wilders – who has been under pressure from critics for issuing a one-page manifesto and for refusing to allow his economic policies to be analysed by macroeconomic think tank CPB – responded by saying the other parties would have no choice but to work with him.

“You simply can’t ignore the will of 2.5 million people,” he said. “They just won’t do that.” Asked how he would implement his election pledges, Mr Wilders said he would close the country’s mosques by removing their licences, and outlaw the Koran using the same anti-hate legislation that bans Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the Netherlands.