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Dutch vote to set off Europe's 'super election year'

[THE HAGUE] Dutch voters head to crunch parliamentary polls in two months' time, heralding the start of a "super election year" in three of Europe's leading economies: The Netherlands, France and Germany.

After the surprise Brexit result in Britain and as Donald Trump's inauguration looms on Friday in the United States, the spotlight is shifting to the continent's future political landscape.

"It's going to be something of a 'super election' year in Europe," said University of Amsterdam political analyst Claes de Vreese.

"There will be a lot of focus on these elections," he told AFP.

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On March 15, some 12.6 million Dutch voters will be eligible to cast ballots to usher in a new parliament, prime minister and government.

It will be the first in a string of elections held against a backdrop of growing anti-EU sentiment and fears over Europe's largest wave of immigration since World War II which have emboldened far-right parties.

The anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) of Dutch MP Geert Wilders is riding high in the polls, with latest figures showing it may grab the lion's share in the 150-seat lower house harnessing between 31-37 members of parliament.

"It could very well be that Wilders' party becomes the largest after the elections," political analyst Andre Krouwel told AFP.

"But I don't think Wilders will end up in government, because it's clear that nobody in The Hague wants to govern with him," he said.

As the countdown began here and the gloves came off, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Sunday there was "zero chance" that his Liberal Party (VVD) - running second in the polls - would agree to govern in a coalition with Mr Wilders.

A firebrand politician with a trademark peroxide hairdo, Mr Wilders was convicted of discrimination in December over statements he made about Moroccans living in the country.

In his election manifesto, Mr Wilders vowed to shut mosques, ban the Koran, close the country's borders and take The Netherlands out of the European Union - the very institution which it helped found.

Mr Rutte told the NOS public broadcaster that the PVV leader's comments vowing fewer Moroccan immigrants were "at odds" with Dutch values and he would not govern with him. "It's not going to happen," he said.

He may still be wary of Mr Wilders. Mr Rutte's first minority cabinet collapsed in 2012 when Mr Wilders withdrew his party's support in parliament.

Analysts believe the fractured nature of Dutch politics means the next government will also likely be a coalition - with perhaps as many as five parties.

Most probably it would include Mr Rutte's VVD, the centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal and the progressive D66 party "with two or more of the smaller Christian parties," predicted Mr Krouwel from the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam.

The Dutch vote will be followed just a month later by the first round of the French presidential elections on April 23.

French polls show the first round shaping up as a three-way contest between conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist ex-economy minister Emmanuel Macron.

A Fillon-Le Pen runoff in May is seen as the most likely scenario.

And after the summer, Germany will vote for a new parliament, with anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) polling at around 15 per cent.

Europe's far-right parties have been boosted by the Brexit vote and Mr Trump's unexpected election win, Mr De Vreese said.

But he said there were "different reasons" for each party's success.

"We should guard against a meta-narrative where each vote for a non-mainstream party is seen as one-and-the same - they are not," he cautioned.

"Of course it fits really well into their (Wilders and Le Pen's) narrative, but it's dangerous to call it a 'people's revolt' against the establishment." Should far-right leaders consolidate gains "you'll have a transatlantic alignment of populist leaders in real power," Mr Krouwel said.

"Trump will then no longer be in isolation. They will work with him and that will have an impact on all kinds of treaties, including the Paris climate accords," he told AFP.

"There will be real political consequences." Ko Colijn, senior researcher at The Hague's respected Clingendael Institute think-tank said far-right victories in The Netherlands, but particularly in France, would likely usher in closer co-operation with both Trump and Russia.

"Should Le Pen win... there is a real chance that she and Trump will see (Russian President Vladimir) Putin as 'a man you can make a deal with'," Mr Colijn said.

AFP

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