THE HAGUE, Netherlands – On the eve of Dutch Parliamentary elections, polls are suggesting a knife-edge vote. Political veterans and relative new-comers are moving into the spotlight as possible members of the next ruling coalition after Wednesday's election. The leaders of five top parties span the nation's political spectrum.
MARK RUTTE: Two-term prime minister and leader of the increasingly right-wing VVD party, Rutte portrays himself as an optimist, statesman and safe pair of hands who has guided the Dutch economy out of crisis and into robust growth.
A 50-year-old bachelor, Rutte has had his optimism repeatedly tested since first taking office late in 2010, with the absolute low point the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight, including nearly 200 Dutch citizens were killed.
Rutte has been plunged into a diplomatic storm in the days leading up to Wednesday's election, with Turkey unleashing a stream of invective against the Netherlands after the government banned two Turkish ministers from addressing weekend rallies in Rotterdam to promote a referendum on constitutional reform that would give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers.
A history graduate and former human resources manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, Rutte is a classic Dutch consensus-builder who has repeatedly managed to hammer out ad-hoc coalitions with opposition parties to force legislation through Parliament.
GEERT WILDERS: Dutch firebrand Wilders has the eyes of the world on him, with expectations that his fortunes in Wednesday's elections will be a guide to the rise or fall of populism in Europe this year.
The shock of his blond-dyed hair is matched by the fire of his strident anti-Islam rhetoric that has repeatedly tested the limits of Dutch freedom of speech. Even after a court found him guilty late last year of inciting discrimination against Moroccans, he responded during the election campaign by blaming "Moroccan scum" for street crime.
That kind of language has boosted his popularity in a nation where anti-immigrant sentiment has been growing for years as efforts to integrate hundreds of thousands of migrants from countries including Turkey and Morocco have faltered. His strident attacks on Islam have brought death threats, forcing him to live under extremely tight security for the last 12 years.
JESSE KLAVER: If Canada has Justin Trudeau and France has Emmanuel Macron, youthful political vigor in the Netherlands is embodied by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, leader of the Green Left party.
In a sense, Klaver is a throwback to the iconoclastic 1970s, when the Dutch were known for their tolerance, welfare state left-wing policies and progressive stances on everything from drug use to abortion.
Look for the opposite of Geert Wilders and you stare Klaver in the face. His embrace of a multicultural society hits close to home, since he has a Moroccan father and a mother of Indonesian descent. As leader of the Green Left he defends something as traditionally Dutch as can be: the use of windmills to counter climate change.
ALEXANDER PECHTOLD: An old-school Dutch moderate centrist and strong supporter of the European Union, Alexander Pechtold is, along with Rutte and Wilders, one of the most experienced lawmakers heading into the election, having led his liberal-democratic D66's parliamentary bloc since 2006.
An art history graduate and former auctioneer, Pechtold has been a key member of what Mark Rutte has called the "constructive opposition" in recent years, helping the government pass legislation through both houses of Parliament.
Pechtold was a vocal backer of a new law allowing advisory referenda in the Netherlands, but saw the first such vote last year backfire on his party's pro-EU stance. Voters in a referendum rejected a pact between the EU and Ukraine, in what was widely interpreted as an anti-EU protest.
As Dutch politics has become more polarized, Pechtold appears to be profiting from occupying an increasingly lonely middle ground. He says his party could have its best election result ever on Wednesday.
SYBRAND BUMA: As Wilders' fierce nationalism and anti-Islam rhetoric has dominated Dutch politics, Sybrand Buma has pushed the traditionally center-right Christian Democrats further to the right. The tactic appears to be paying off for a party that long was a mainstay of ruling coalitions but has spent the last four years in opposition.
Polls ahead of the election have put the Christian Democrats in third place, narrowly behind Wilders' PVV.
Buma, a law graduate, made headlines late in the campaign by proposing populist, nationalist policies including having school children sing the Dutch national anthem in class and stripping Dutch citizens with dual nationality of their second passports — up to and including the country's Argentine-born Queen Maxima.