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After Islam, Dutch far-right leader Wilders targets Europe

THE HAGUE -- Amid a Europe-dominated election campaign, Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders has swapped his traditional bugbear Islam for the meddling EU in a bid to boost support.

"Given the financial crisis, Europe became an easy theme," said Claes de Vreese, political communications lecturer at Amsterdam University, pointing to populist Wilders' "opportunism."

"The rhetoric has stayed the same, it's just the enemy that has changed," de Vreese told AFP ahead of legislative elections on Sept. 12.

The firebrand golden-maned Wilders is the political heir of populist Pim Fortuyn, assassinated by an animal rights activist in 2002, and wants the Netherlands to quit the European Union, the eurozone and the passport-free Schengen area as well as to stop bailing out heavily indebted southern European nations.

It was Wilders who brought down the previous minority government of liberal Mark Rutte, whom he had propped up with his MPs' support in parliament, by walking out of talks to bring the Dutch deficit below the eurozone's three percent limit.

Wilders refused to back an austerity budget, saying he would not bow to "the diktats of Brussels."

"The loss of sovereignty, no longer being the master in your own country, these are themes that perfectly fit his ideology," said Bert van den Braak, political researcher at Leiden University.

"This theme gives him much more of a chance than if he'd stayed with the debate on Islam," Van den Braak told AFP. "We know that discourse, Wilders had to come up with something new."

Wilders lives under 24-hour police protection having spent much energy fighting what he calls "the Islamization of the Netherlands."

He has called for the full-veil burqa and the Quran to be banned and was acquitted on charges of inciting racial hatred.

A week away from the Sept. 12 vote, polls predict Wilders' PVV (the Party for Freedom) will win 15-19 seats in the 150-seat lower house, having secured 24 seats in the 2010 election, a vote that catapulted the PVV to the role of the Netherlands' third political force.

But analysts note that his party, founded in 2006, was only tipped to win 18 seats in opinion polls before the last election.

"The polls give the impression that the PVV will remain stable or suffer a slight loss," said Claes de Vreese.

"Which isn't paying a high price for having had the PVV in power and for the way the government fell because of them," he said.

Analysts say that Wilders has opted for the best possible strategy available to him: keeping his head down as long as possible after the fall of the government and then leading a strong campaign shortly before the vote.

"One thing seems clear to me, no one will want to collaborate with the PVV," said Andre Krouwel, political scientist at Amsterdam Free University.

"Whether he gets 10 or 25 MP seats, he will play absolutely no role in the formation of the government."

"I think they (the PVV) are no longer seen as a credible partner within the Dutch political class," said De Vreese, noting that Prime Minister Rutte would lose "enormous" credibility if he were once more associated with the far-right party.

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