Mark Rutte, Geert Wilders spar in heated TV debate

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his main rival at national elections, the far-fight populist Geert Wilders, have faced off on live television for the first time, in a heated debate that centred around the country’s relationship with Turkey and its future in the European Union.

Two days before Wednesday’s crucial general election, The Netherlands is mired in a war of words with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the government’s decision to block two Turkish ministers from addressing political rallies in Rotterdam ahead of an April referendum.

Referring to the ongoing row, Wilders, known for his anti-immigration stance, said Rutte should “at least throw the Turkish ambassador and his staff out of the country.

READ MORE: Who votes for Geert Wilders?

“You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders,” Wilders told the prime minister, as tempers flared in the 30-minute debate –  their only nationally televised face-to-face event. 

“That’s a totally fake solution,” Rutte shot back. “You want Nexit, you want The Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost … don’t do it.

“This is the difference between tweeting from the couch and running the country,” Rutte said, portraying Wilders as unfit to lead for often communicating via tweets.

“If you run the country you have to take sensible decisions.”

The elections are being closely watched as a signal of the possible rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe  [Reuters]

Polls suggest Wednesday’s results could be close, with Rutte’s Liberal VVD returning as the largest party in the 150-seat parliament by a small margin.

The elections are being closely watched as a signal of the possible rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe, with key elections also planned this year in France and Germany. 

“I want The Netherlands to be the first country which stops this trend of the wrong sort of populism,” Rutte told reporters, just hours before the debate.

Wilders is unlikely to be able to form the next government even if he wins the popular vote as all mainstream parties have ruled out working with him. The Netherlands’ proportional representation voting system guarantees coalitions.

“This election has increasingly become defined by the role of multiculturalism in Dutch society,” Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Rotterdam, said.

“Rutte and his government are presenting themselves as the parties of tolerance and support of the EU. and Wilders is appealing to those who feel their country has changed too much in recent years.”

Wilders, who says he is on a mission against the “Islamisation” of the country, has promised to shut Dutch borders to Muslim immigrants, close mosques and ban sales of the Quran. 

He also wants to follow the British and pull the country out of the European Union which it helped found. 

In the debate, Rutte mocked Wilders’ election pledges to ban the Quran, asking if he intended to establish a “Quran police” to go door to door confiscating Islam’s holy book.

The two leaders are due to take part in one final pre-election debate with other political leaders Tuesday night.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies