SPIJKENISSE, Netherlands (AP) — Anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders has kicked off his campaign Saturday for Dutch parliamentary elections, amid tight security and intense media interest in a blue-collar town near Rotterdam.
Surrounded by police and trailed by a small group of protesters and a much larger throng of journalists, Wilders handed out fliers and posed for selfies with supporters at a market in Spijkenisse.
"The elections for sure are historical. It's a choice that the people of Holland can make on March 15 whether to give their country away more and more or to get their country back to themselves. To make the Netherlands ours again," Wilders told dozens of reporters before making his way around the town's small marketplace.
Wilders, whose party now has 12 lawmakers in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament, is riding high in polls, with most putting him narrowly ahead of the right-wing party of two-term Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
However, it remains to be seen if Wilders could form a governing coalition if he wins the popular vote on March 15. Mainstream parties shun him because of his hard-line anti-Islam views and have ruled out working with him.
While the Dutch economy is now growing strongly after tough austerity measures by Rutte's ruling coalition over the last four years, Wilders says his supporters are not feeling it in their wallets.
He said people have to pay "more for the rent of their house, pay more when it comes to the public health system. Their pensions are being cut and they feel nothing about the better economy."
One supporter held up a fake 100 guilder bill emblazoned with a portrait of Wilders — a reference to Wilders' plan to take the Netherlands out of the European Union. Opponents, meanwhile, held up signs saying "Refugees Welcome" and "Don't Let Them Scare You."
"A lot of people are insecure and now afraid and Wilders is making use of that and taking all their votes," said protester Emma Smeets.
A Wilders supporter, Ellen Kuipers, who also was handing out fliers for the anti-immigrant Pegida group, said she — like Wilders — supported policies backing traditional Dutch culture, opposing EU free trade deals with the United States and Canada and providing more money for the elderly.
Wilders appeals directly to such voters.
"I have one message to the Dutch people and that is, if you want to regain your country, if you want to make the Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands — your own home again — then you can only vote for one party."