Dutch vote is step 1 as Europe elections test populism

By The Associated Press | Posted - Mar. 15, 2017 at 11:58 a.m.

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PARIS (AP) — As the Netherlands elects new leadership Wednesday, its European neighbors are watching with unusual interest — because the struggle between nationalist, anti-immigrant politicians and pro-EU forces is playing out across the continent in elections later this year.

The Dutch vote is likely to resonate across borders, even though local campaign issues differ. Here's a look at Europe's upcoming electoral battlegrounds:



Like President Donald Trump and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has set the tone for the campaign for France's election with her anti-immigrant and anti-globalization program .

Le Pen argues that Muslim immigration and economic globalization are destroying France's identity, and polls suggest she could advance to the second round of France's presidential election, set for April 23 and May 7.

Yet her goals — which include leaving the EU and shared euro currency, and banning Muslim headscarves and Jewish kippahs anywhere in public — scare many French voters, and she is unlikely to win the decisive runoff.

Her leading rival, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, is positioning himself as the anti-Le Pen, pushing for more European integration and embracing the global online economy.



German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen abroad as a bulwark of tolerance, is seeking re-election in September.

Committed to European unity, Merkel's conservatives face a challenge from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party. But the party, known as AfD, has lost luster amid infighting and other scandals, and as the migrant influx that helped drive their rise has slowed.

Merkel's biggest threat currently is from the resurgent center-left Social Democrats under former European Parliament chief Martin Schulz. Schulz is also committed to European unity; so far, he has focused his pitch on tackling perceived economic injustices at home.



Italy is facing a national parliamentary election in 2018 unless anti-establishment parties succeed in getting earlier polling, after pro-EU Premier Matteo Renzi resigned following the failure of a reforms referendum in December.

With Italy's economy failing to rebound for years, opinion polls show the populist 5-Star Movement, led by satirical comic Beppe Grillo, is consolidating gains over the ruling Democratic Party and its allies.

But the 5 Stars have so far ruled out working in a coalition and don't have the numbers yet to rule alone.

The other main populist force is the anti-immigrant Northern League, which has capitalized on growing discontent with unchecked migrant flows. The League has traditionally allied itself with other center-right parties but is only polling at around 13 percent on its own.

Premier Paolo Gentiloni has been running the government until a new election is held, but his Democratic Party is fractured.



Bulgaria holds a general election on March 26, after a campaign dominated by nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic sentiment in the EU's poorest member country.

Polls suggest a strong showing for a newly formed populist movement Volya (Will) and the United Patriots, a coalition of three nationalist parties. They are fueling skepticism of the EU by alleging that Brussels aims to transform Bulgaria into a buffer zone where refugees will remain stranded.

While they remain in the minority, they could complicate efforts by traditional parties — such as the center-right party of former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, currently with a narrow lead in polls over rival Socialists — to form a strong majority government.

And the populist parties have set the electoral tone, prompting other parties to replace liberal slogans with more traditional values like nation, religion and family.

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