AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - As the Netherlands heads for a general election, barely a day passes without a mention of "Henk and Ingrid", or Mr and Mrs Average, in a political debate that has revolved around the economy and the euro zone debt crisis.
The invention of populist politician Geert Wilders - who heads the anti-immigration, anti-euro Freedom Party - this mythical couple attracted a different kind of notoriety after a real Dutch Henk, with a wife called Ingrid, killed a Turkish immigrant, prompting commentators to warn that populism can backfire.
Until now, voters have been receptive to homespun stories about the imaginary hardworking couple who, Wilders says, are fed up with Muslim immigration, and lately with the cost to Dutch taxpayers of bailouts resulting from the euro zone debt crisis.
Wilders' anti-immigration, anti-Muslim rhetoric propelled his party into third place in the 2010 election and gave him real power and influence as the minority government's ally in parliament. It was Wilders who brought that government down in April when he refused to support budget cuts to reduce the deficit to meet EU targets.
"The cultural issues that dominated from 2006 are off the agenda since the economic crisis really hit us hard in Europe," said Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at VU University Amsterdam.
Krouwel says the tragic story of Henk and Ingrid highlights the limits to the kind of opportunistic populism that he said had passed its high tide in the country.
Henk was implicated in the apparent racist killing of a Turkish immigrant in the poor, post-industrial town of Almelo.
According to the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, a long-running conflict between Henk, 61, his wife Ingrid, 59, and the family of a Turkish immigrant named Aziz Kara, 64, came to a head last Saturday. During an argument, Henk threw Kara to the ground. Kara went into a coma and later died.
The sad irony of an apparent racist killing being committed by two people sharing the names of Wilders' mythical populist couple has been widely noted, furnishing material for comedians in an Amsterdam club on Friday night.
POPULAR TURKISH FAMILY
Henk and Ingrid used to refer to Kara's family as "the mafia," putting on Dutch music to drown out their Turkish music, and complaining that the Turkish family, popular in the neighborhood, was "spying on" them, the newspaper reported.
"This is the risk of a strategy that's based on imagery and issue-ownership. They connect with the personal lives of people, but you run the great risk of someone turning up with exactly the name and the position," said Krouwel, who compared Wilders' misfortune to that which befell John McCain when he took up the cause of "Joe the Plumber" in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.
"It's a cynical thing when you take up someone like Joe the Plumber, and then he turns out to be a racist idiot."
The latest opinion polls show the Freedom Party would win only 20 seats in the 150-seat parliament, down from 24 in the 2010 election. This week in a new round of defections, two more lawmakers resigned from Wilders' party, accusing him of running it like a North Korean-style "politburo", and leaving it with just 21 members of parliament.
A survey published on Sunday by the pollster Maurice de Hond also suggests cultural populism may have had its day. Only a fifth of respondents supported Wilders' call to exclude Turkey from NATO, but more than half supported his proposals for cutting value-added tax and fuel duty.
However, Wilders' Freedom Party still lags the other Dutch populist party - the far-left Socialist Party, which also has an anti-austerity, pro-growth agenda.
The Socialist Party, which in the 1970s was still an unreconstructed Maoist-Marxist party, has "social-democratized" itself, according to Krouwel, and is now on course to become the largest party, with as many as 31 seats.
That could be bad news for Germany after the Dutch election on September 12. Under Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Christian Democrat Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager, the Netherlands has been Germany's closest ally in pushing for fiscal rigor and painful austerity in Europe's indebted south.
The Socialist Party, with its focus on jobs and economic growth, could be a much more difficult partner. Although the Netherlands has a consensual political culture and a tradition of big, unwieldy coalitions, Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer would have trouble finding coalition partners to support his economic agenda, Krouwel said.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; editing by Tim Pearce)