Europe

Immigration still an issue for voters in Dutch election

On a blustery grey day in Amsterdam's Westermarkt, the last hours of campaigning in the Dutch election are ticking away.

Pushing though shoppers rifling through piles of cheap knickers, fluffy bath towels and three-for-five-euro jewellery offers, rival campaign teams from the Labour party (PVDA) and the free-market liberals (VVD) hand out leaflets.

In among the indigenous Dutch is a broad selection of the nationalities that make Amsterdam one of the world's most heterogeneous cities.

Image caption Centre-right candidate Kamran Ullah campaigning in Amsterdam

One hundred and seventy-seven different nationalities live in the Netherlands' largest city including, at the last count, three people from Bhutan and six from Laos.

Headscarves, dreadlocks and hijabs are all found in abundance.

Leading the effort of the VVD - which looks likely to be the single largest party when the results come out on Thursday - is Kamran Ullah, a 26-year-old candidate of Pakistani descent.

The stallholders, perhaps unsurprisingly, talk of the economy, and the coming budget cuts as the big issue of the campaign. And the VVD's candidate, like those of all the big parties, agrees.

Unspoken taboo

"The elections are really about the economy," says Mr Ullah, "what will change after the elections, with the crisis, the recession and the credit crunch. It's really about the economy."

Which may seem odd, given that political debate in the Netherlands has been convulsed by arguments about the Dutch model of integration and immigration ever since Pim Fortuyn breached the unwritten and unspoken taboo on such subjects in the national elections of 2002.

Mr Fortuyn was shot and killed nine days before that poll. His political heir, Geert Wilders, is now trying to keep the debate alive as the Netherlands is buffeted by Europe's economic crisis.

"Of course [the campaign] is a lot about the economy," Mr Wilders tells the BBC on his last campaign stop in Rotterdam, "but it is also about security, it's about immigration.

"Immigration also has an enormous economic impact. We believe that cutting immigration for economic reasons should be part of the campaign.

"Other parties are sometimes laughing about it and saying, 'Hey, you should not be talking about that,' but a lot of people here in the Netherlands, millions of them, believe that immigration and the economy have a lot to do with each other."

But has Mr Wilders' message been drowned out by the grim economic situation?

Different story

"This campaign was only about economics and how they have to cut the deficit and who will pay for it," says Maurice De Hond, one of the country's top pollsters. "That's the only topic that was important during this campaign."

That fits traditional political theory for mature democracies: in tough times, pocketbook issues trump everything else.

But half an hour's train ride outside Amsterdam, in the overspill town of Almere, where Mr Wilders' PVV triumphed in local elections in March, there is a different story.

Wander through the pedestrianised retail centre of the town and nearly everyone mentions immigration, integration, and foreigners as the big issues of the campaign.

In five years of covering European elections, I have never come across people speaking so frankly about the problems of immigration and integration.

Out-and-proud Wilders supporters are thin on the ground. But on these tidy streets, lined with mid-range global brands, mass immigration and its impact are high in shoppers' minds.

'It's getting worse'

Kirsten Fenvelt, a 33-year-old secretary, admits that the topic is uncomfortable, but plunges in.

"It's a problem with strange people," she says. "Some people don't want to work and they want the money, and for me that's an issue, because I live with a lot of people like that around.

"It's not getting any better," she adds. "For the last few years it's been getting worse and worse. Something should happen."

"Officially, this issue has faded away," say political commentator Syp Wynia, "but that's also what the traditional parties want.

Image caption Political analyst Syp Wynia says the immigration issue has not gone away

"In countries like ours… it's a sort of triangle. Crime is one point of the triangle. Another one is your income, the future of the welfare state. And the other one is immigration.

"It was generally recognised that this triangle existed in the last 10 years. And I'm sure that among the general public, amongst voters, the triangle still exists."

Make or break

Analysts say the leading conservative party, the VVD, pinched a fair number of the PVV's clothes, adopting an immigration policy that is in all but rhetoric the same as Mr Wilders'.

And if current polls are correct, Mr Wilders' PVV could make or break a right-wing coalition.

Win or lose on Wednesday, Geert Wilders - and the debate he inherited and encouraged - has challenged, and changed, the Netherlands' idea of itself.

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