Rutte gets firm with Turkey days before election

Relations between the Netherlands and Turkey are at an all-time low

Just days after far-right leader Geert Wilders accused him of being “too weak” to stop a pro-Erdogan rally, Dutch premier Mark Rutte responded by preventing one Turkish minister from landing in the country, expelling a second and using riot police to put down protests in Rotterdam.

The tough action by Mr Rutte – who retains a slim lead in the polls ahead of Wednesday’s election – led to a furious response from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who denounced the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants and fascists” and pledged to respond with “harsh” sanctions.

Despite eight phone conversations between Mr Rutte and his Turkish counterpart, Benali Yildirim, relations finally broke down on Sunday when an exasperated Mr Rutte commented: “The Turkish government keeps talking about Turkish citizens in the Netherlands . . . These are Dutch citizens.”

Mr Erdogan responded in kind at a ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday, publicly linking the Dutch action with the election for the first time, and warning: “Netherlands, if you are sacrificing Turkish-Dutch relations for the sake of the election on Wednesday, you will pay a high price.”


Deterioration in relations

It’s understood the Dutch ambassador to Ankara, who is currently out of the country, has been told by the Turkish foreign affairs ministry not to return and that Dutch diplomatic posts will be closed – an unprecedented deterioration in relations between fellow Nato members.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was prevented from speaking in Germany last week, had been due to address a rally in Rotterdam advocating a yes vote for wider powers for Mr Erdogan in a Turkish referendum next month, but his jet was prohibited from landing on Saturday.

At the same time, Turkey’s family minister, Betul Sayan Kaya, who arrived in the Netherlands from Germany, was detained by police, returned to the German border and expelled from the country.

After several hundred angry pro-Erdogan supporters gathered outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on Saturday evening and bottles and stones were thrown in protest, the authorities responded by using riot police with dogs, officers on horseback wielding batons, and water cannon.

Mr Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party whose anti-immigration policies have been at the heart of this election campaign, waded in with this tweet: “To all Turks in the Netherlands who agree with Erdogan: Go to Turkey and NEVER come back.”

Tough action

Ethnic Turks account for some 2.3 per cent of the population and typically vote for parties of the left, such as Labour, D66 and a new anti-discrimination party, Denk (Think), so Mr Rutte’s tough action is likely to gain him some votes on the right rather than lose any on the left.

He may also be hoping there’s a possibility, with just two days to go, of attracting some votes from undecideds who have been inclined to support Mr Wilders but are worried he could drag the country too far to the right and damage the prospects for a recovering economy.

Wednesday’s election is regarded as a bellwether for European populism and will be watched not just to see whether the Netherlands embraces or rejects a swing to the right but for some indication of what’s likely to happen later this year in France and Germany.

“What’s fascinating is that this election will test the health of Euroscepticism in a core member of the EU,” says Adriano Bosoni, senior Europe strategist at analysts, Stratfor. “That should give us some indication of what way the wind is blowing.”

Banning the Koran

For some months now that the wind has undoubtedly been blowing in favour of the Freedom Party, whose one-page election manifesto, apart from withdrawal from the EU, includes an end to immigration, the closure of mosques and the banning of the Koran.

At one point, Mr Wilders was polling as high as 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, with Mr Rutte trailing in the low 20s – a clear sign, said the Freedom Party leader, that a rebirth of somnolent Dutch nationalism in the form of a “Patriotic Spring” was just around the corner.

A win of that magnitude for Mr Wilders would be regarded by the markets as “a preview of what could happen in the French election”, says Art Hogan of Wunderlich Securities, especially in the context of Marine Le Pen’s warning last week that “the euro isn’t ailing, it’s dead”.

Regain momentum

But at the start of this month, Mr Rutte and his Liberals began to regain momentum, with the two men level pegging at first and the latest poll of polls from Peilingwijzer, published on Sunday but carried out before the Rotterdam riots, confirming that the Liberals remain marginally ahead.

That poll of polls shows the Liberals with between 23 and 27 seats or 16 per cent of the vote, the Freedom Party falling to between 19 and 23 seats or 13 per cent of the vote, and, as predicted, the Christian Democrats and D66 vying for third place on 18 to 20 seats or 12 per cent of the vote.

After that, GreenLeft are performing well on 15 to 17 seats, with the junior coalition partners, Labour – still being punished for their role in Mr Rutte’s austerity cabinet – on 11 to 13 seats or 7 per cent of the vote.

Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders are still scheduled to meet for an eagerly-awaited two-man TV debate on Monday evening, with all the party leaders due to meet on radio on Tuesday evening.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court