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Rutte’s challenge to upstart nationalist Baudet backfires

European Union

Rutte’s challenge to upstart nationalist Baudet backfires

Thierry Baudet looked more comfortable than the prime minister in a testy 65-minute debate

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When Dutch voters cast their ballots in European elections on Thursday, it will partly be a verdict on Mark Rutte's choice of political opponent: the Nexit-supporting, Islam-baiting nationalist Thierry Baudet.

Mr Baudet, a 36-year-old political novice, has usurped Geert Wilders as the Netherlands’ most brash, extreme-right Eurosceptic whose tweets, speeches and Instagram posts fill plenty of Dutch column inches and hours of TV airtime.

Foreign Policy magazine last year dubbed Mr Baudet and his Forum for Democracy as part of a "disease of Dutch white nationalism". Mr Baudet this week wrote a review of the work of French novelist Michel Houellebecq where he questioned whether women really want to be in “equal relationships”.

Mr Rutte and Mr Baudet went head to head on Wednesday night after the prime minister challenged his upstart rival to a televised showdown. After days of social media jibes, the pair took part in a testy 65-minute debate that was full of smiles and peppered by awkward handshakes.

It was the newbie who looked more comfortable in the format. Mr Baudet taunted Mr Rutte for propping up the federalist dreams of his pan-European liberal party, led by Guy Verhofstadt, and scored points on his closed-door immigration policy and the failings of the euro.

Mr Baudet also accused Mr Rutte of seeking a top job in Brussels, to which the prime minister replied he has no interest, especially as he didn't want his opponent to become the biggest party in the Netherlands.

Mr Rutte's best moments came when he confronted Mr Baudet on his support for the Kremlin — a sore spot for a country that still reels from the MH17 air disaster. Mr Baudet responded by comparing Jean-Claude Juncker's stance on Russia to Napoleon and Hitler.

The debate also descended into moments of farce when Baudet asked Rutte when he last cried. Mr Rutte also wondered what kind of traumas had led his opponent to hold such “bizarre” ideas about women.

Mr Baudet's Forum party, which didn't exist three years ago, has been level pegging in the polls with Mr Rutte's VVD for the last month. As Dutch voters head to the polls today, Mr Baudet's performance will give comfort to his supporters, proving he can go toe-to-toe with the country's most successful mainstream politician and emerge unscathed.

As for Mr Rutte, even before the debate, his decision to take on Mr Baudet rather than more mainstream rivals has come under fire.

The Dutch prime minister wants to frame the EU elections as a simple choice between his responsible (if cool) pro-Europeanism and the reckless Nexit policies of Mr Baudet. It's a strategy that mimics that of Emmanuel Macron, who has made the EU election a battle between him and Marine Le Pen.

But the strategy may have backfired on Mr Rutte. The perils of the debate format, and Mr Baudet's relaxed demeanour made him look like a polished, professional challenger and Mr Rutte the defensive incumbent. The prime minister also missed the opportunity to confront Mr Baudet on his culture war diatribes against climate change, women and Islam.

Ahead of the debate, Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic and expert on populism, accused Mr Rutte of "cynically" elevating Mr Baudet to the status of sole opponent in an election campaign that is about more than just populism.

"Rutte did everything to ignore these elections," he said. "But at the last moment made Baudet the challenger as if there were no other opponents and no other issues."

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mehreen.khan@ft.com; @mehreenkhn

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