As the Netherlands goes to the polls to decide whether to back outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, and his promise of economic stability, or to swing to the right in support of anti-immigrant Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, up to 10 per cent of the electorate may still be undecided.
With the latest opinion poll showing the Liberals regaining the advantage in their battle with the Freedom Party for the popular vote, the outcome is being watched closely for some indication of how populist parties are likely to fare later this year in France and Germany.
Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders faced one another in an eagerly awaited TV debate for the first time on Monday evening, but although the confrontation was lively and at times verging on bad-tempered, both men stuck to well-worn campaign themes and neither delivered a fatal blow.
Mr Rutte confirmed once again that he would not work in coalition with Mr Wilders, whichever of their parties wins the largest share of the vote – a warning the Freedom Party leader claimed the electorate simply didn’t believe, and which he said amounted to “an insult to Dutch voters”.
When Mr Wilders attacked Mr Rutte for failing to expel the Turkish ambassador in the row over last weekend’s planned pro-Erdogan rally in Rotterdam and the riots that followed its cancellation, Mr Rutte said he stood over the difficult decision to prevent two Turkish ministers from speaking.
‘Easy to tweet’
“It’s easy to tweet messages from the sidelines telling the world what you would do if you were in charge,” the prime minister retorted. “It’s quite another thing to govern a country. Then you have to show judgment.”
He appealed to the electorate not to allow the Netherlands to become the first in a series of European “dominoes” to topple to populism this year.
As to how the debate will be reflected at the ballot box, Roderik van Grieken of the Dutch Debating Institute said he believed the prime minister had put in the better performance, casting himself as “the big anti-populist”.
Since the weekend, opinion polls have been showing the Liberals and the Freedom Party level-pegging or with the Liberals taking a slight lead, not much larger than the margin of error.
The latest poll, however, published on Tuesday evening by I&O Research, suggests Mr Rutte has opened up a more substantial lead, with 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament as against a catastrophic 16 for the Freedom Party, just one more than it won in 2012.
Those figures suggest Mr Rutte has benefited from his tough approach to the diplomatic row with Turkey – although that positive response seems to have taken some time to filter through. The I&O poll also suggests D66, GreenLeft and the Christian Democrats all following closely on 19 and 20 seats each.
It's worth noting that on Monday an EenVandaag poll also suggested that 58 per cent of the electorate were sure who to vote for, 31 per cent were wavering, and 11 per cent were absolutely undecided and likely to choose as late as polling day – meaning 42 per cent of the electorate remained "in play" to a greater or lesser extent.
In both the Brexit referendum and the US election, undecided voters overwhelmingly chose the anti-establishment option.
The latest Peilingwijzer poll of polls, however – an amalgam of four separate polls including the EenVandaag poll – also puts the Liberals ahead with between 24 and 28 seats or 17 per cent of the vote, compared to between 20 and 24 seats or 14 per cent of the vote for the Freedom Party.
"With a race that's this tight, just the smallest of differences between the Liberals, the Freedom Party, the Christian Democrats and D66 can have major consequences," said pollster Tom Louwerse.
Given the number of parties contesting the election and the fragmentation of the vote as a result, it’s likely it will take either the Liberals or the Freedom Party, plus four other parties, to form a workable coalition – which in the Netherlands could take months to negotiate.
Under the Dutch system, the largest party has the right to attempt to put a government together first. If that attempt fails, then the next-largest takes over. Which party leader begins that process will be decided on Wednesday evening.
As 12.9 million Dutch go to the polls, here are five things to watch:
* Who will take third place in the popular vote? Will it be the Christian Democrats or centre-left D66? They will be potential “king-makers” as coalition negotiations begin.
* There are three new parties: Denk (Think) and Artikel 1 (Article 1), both representing immigrants and opposing discrimination, and Forum for Democracy, led by Thierry Baudet, who successfully campaigned for a No vote in the EU-Ukraine referendum.
*The Netherlands has an ageing population: 24 per cent of those eligible to vote are over 65 and they’re also most likely to vote. Will they choose economic stability or vent anger over immigration?
* How long it takes to form a new coalition: the average length is 72 days, the shortest was 10 days in 1958, and the longest was 208 days in 1977.
* Will the election be hacked? For the first time in more than a decade, the votes in this general election will be counted by hand to avoid the possibility of “manipulation” by Russian hackers.