Dutch election: Leader Mark Rutte battles rival Geert Wilders in heated debate - as it happened

Sofia Lotto Persio
Dutch elections 2017

With just two days to go before the polls open on 15 March, Prime Minister Mark Rutte faced off against his main rival Geert Wilders in a head-to-head debate held at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

As the polls currently stand, no party is predicted to win more than 20% of the vote, meaning that a government coalition would have to involve at least 4 parties to ensure a controlling majority of the 150-seat lower house of parliament.

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  • The ongoing diplomatic spat between the Netherlands and Turkey opened the debate, with Wilders blaming Rutte of being "held hostage" by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the controversial EU migrant deal.
  • Rutte excluded once and for all the possibility of his Freedom and Democracy Party (VVD) ruling in a coalition government with Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV).
  • The state of the economy, rising cost of healthcare and questions over immigration and Dutch identity were the three main issues discussed in the debate.
  • Four out of 10 voters still have to decide who to entrust with their vote on 15 March. Rutte's party leads in the poll, but the prime minister warned in a press conference that Wilders can still win.
Dutch election 2017

In the final moments of the debate, Rutte reminds the audience that Wilders left the government coalition at a time of crisis in 2012, and that he has become more radical since. "I will not work with such a party", he reiterated.

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Throughout the debate Rutte tried to portray Wilders as someone who could not be trusted with government or with keeping its campaign promises. Pushing Wilders on the issue of monitoring the promised ban on the Muslim holy scripture, the far-right leader said that "there will not be a Quran police". Rutte reacted: "Another fake promise!"

Wilders, in turn, portrayed Rutte as someone who no could no longer be trusted with ruling the country. "No one in the Netherlands believes you anymore," he told the prime minister. He described himself as being "in the final against the liars, those giving our country away".

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Up to the Dutch people to now decide who to entrust with their vote on 15 March. Polls will be open from 7.30am local time (6.30 GMT) to 9pm (8pm GMT). Preliminary results are due to be announced in the early hours of the following morning.

The debate is now heating up as the candidates discuss immigration – Wilders' favourite topic as he focused his campaign around the idea of "de-islamising the Netherlands".

The two candidates argued over the controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey. Rutte said the only way to prevent more people coming to the Netherlands is to make deals with the countries from which the boats depart.

Wilders' proposal to close the borders won't work, said Rutte: "Closing borders is an illusion, people will still come in."

Rising cost of healthcare is a matter of concern for thousands of Dutch people. The healthcare system was privatised a decade ago. Everyone in the country has to have insurance coverage, so the government has a subsidy system in place for those who cannot afford to pay the insurance cost, which is about €100 (£87) a month per person.

On top of that, there is a sum of money that patients need to pay of their own pocket before the insurance covers them, called "eigen risico" – which increases every year.

Some parties want to renationalise the healthcare system or at least get rid of the "eigen risico".

Wilders accused Rutte of letting the elderly "starve" due to the costs, while asylum seekers enjoy free healthcare. "You are not the prime minister of Dutch people but of foreigners".

Rutte maintained: "We have the best healthcare system in Europe" but agreed to rein in the costs of healthcare. He also pointed to increased in facilities for elderly care.

Rutte introduces the possibility of the Netherlands leaving the European Union, the so-called "Nexit".

He accused Wilders of wanting to see the country fall into chaos. But Wilders stood by the idea that leaving the European Union would be beneficial for the country, and reacted: "You said Great Britain would disappear from earth after Brexit, but they are doing better than ever".

Four out of 10 Dutch voters are yet to make up their minds over who to vote for. The main topics of interest are the economy, healthcare and immigration.

Rutte's coalition government with the Labour party (PvdA) claims to have improved the economic situation of the country.

Wilders is on the offensive: according to him, the economy did not improve thanks to the government, but despite the government.

The two candidates head to the stage from opposite sides of the auditorium. Mark Rutte walks in first. They shake hands.

The first question is about the ongoing diplomatic row with Turkey.

Rutte has no regrets over how he handled the situation. "80% of Turkish integrate within the Dutch population. The rallies are completely unacceptable".

Wilders rejects that idea. According to him, Turkish people are not properly integrated in the Netherlands.

Prime Minister Rutte spoke to the press earlier on 13 March, addressing the ongoing diplomatic row with Turkey, calling on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologise for his comments about the Netherlands.

When asked whether he took such a hard line towards Turkey this weekend in an attempt to portray himself as a tough leader before the election on Wednesday (15 March), Rutte responded that his cabinet "did not ask for this situation."

The prime minister faces fierce opposition from far-right leader Geert Wilders, who is hoping the row with Turkey will boost support for his anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV). The issue is expected to dominate the election debate tonight.

The public awaits the beginning of the debate, the first major confrontation between Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders.

The two have a troubled history. Wilders broke off from Rutte's Freedom and Democracy Party (VVD) in 2006 to form the Freedom Party (PVV). The two parties worked together in 2010, when the PVV won 24 seats and propped up the minority government led by Rutte.

Wilders was also responsible for the collapse of that government in 2012, due to differing views over budget cuts and his party lost support in the elections, dropping 9 seats.

Speaking to the press on 13 March, Rutte said he will not govern together with Wilders again. "When the crisis was the deepest in 2012 he ran away from his responsibility. He put party interest above national interest," Rutte said of his rival.

As Wilders increasingly escalated his anti-Islam rhetoric since, "it is now impossible for me and my party to work together with him in a coalition," Rutte added.

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