Europe

Dutch vote is step 1 as Europe elections test populism

  • PVV party leader Geert Wilders waits to take his turn in the closing debate at parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe. (Phil Nijhuis HH POOL via AP)

    PVV party leader Geert Wilders waits to take his turn in the closing debate at parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Amid unprecedented international attention, the Dutch go to the polls Wednesday in a parliamentary election that is seen as a bellwether for the future of populism in a year of crucial votes in Europe. (Phil Nijhuis HH POOL via AP)  (The Associated Press)

  • Former French Economy Minister and candidate for the next presidential election, Emmanuel Macron poses for a photograph as he leaves the University of Lille, during a political rally for his movement, En Marche! (Forward!) in Lille, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

    Former French Economy Minister and candidate for the next presidential election, Emmanuel Macron poses for a photograph as he leaves the University of Lille, during a political rally for his movement, En Marche! (Forward!) in Lille, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)  (The Associated Press)

  • German Chancellor Merkel speaks at a meeting of the German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, March 14, 2017.  ( Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

    German Chancellor Merkel speaks at a meeting of the German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. ( Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)  (The Associated Press)

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.

Here's a look at Europe's upcoming electoral battlegrounds:

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FRANCE

Like U.S. 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 stance.

Le Pen argues that Muslim immigration and economic globalization are destroying France's identity, and polls suggest she could win the first in France's two-round 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 kippas 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.

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GERMANY

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.

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ITALY

Italy is facing national parliamentary elections 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 new elections are held but his Democratic Party is fractured.