Voting lacklustre in Dutch EU yardstick poll
Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in a referendum over building closer European ties with Ukraine, but sluggish turnout raised doubts about whether the ballot, seen as a barometer of anti-EU feeling, would even be valid.
Voters were being asked if they support the European Union's association agreement with Ukraine, which aims to foster better trade relations with the war-torn country and former Soviet satellite.
But organisers have admitted the ballot is essentially about broader anti-EU sentiment, and it could be an important yardstick only months ahead of Britain's "Brexit" referendum in June.
For the ballot to be valid there has to be at least a 30 percent turnout from the 12.5 million people eligible to vote.
The civic-minded Dutch usually flock to the polls, with past turnouts hitting around 75 percent.
But amid driving, cold rain, people appeared to be staying away, and by early evening only 13.7 percent of voters had cast their ballots in the capital, Amsterdam, 22.1 percent in the busy port of Rotterdam and 20.4 percent in The Hague.
A Dutch "No" to the two-year-old treaty with Kiev could pose a headache for the European Union (EU) and is being closely watched by Moscow as well.
- 'Stability for Europe' -
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who cast his ballot at a Hague primary school, urged citizens to vote in favour.
"We have to help Ukraine build up a judicial state and its democracy. To support its minorities like Jews and its gay community. Therefore I call on the entire Netherlands: go vote and vote in favour," Rutte said.
"Europe needs more stability at its edges."
Opinion polls on the eve of the vote gave the "No" vote a slight edge, but many voters were undecided, saying they remained puzzled about what it was all about.
"I think it's good to have a referendum, to be able to say what we think of Brussels. It's important," one voter, who identified himself only as Bert, 49, told AFP.
It remains unclear what the results could mean for the Netherlands -- which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
The vote is non-binding and the government has been non-committal, saying only it would study the results after polls close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT).
The "No" camp has highlighted concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and continuing separatist unrest in the east, among reasons to refuse closer ties with Kiev.
According to one Ipsos poll, some 37 percent said they would vote against. Around 33 percent were in favour and the rest were undecided.
Ukraine, where a Moscow-backed president who rejected the cooperation deal was ousted in 2014, has actively campaigned for a "yes" vote.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced confidence in Dutch support, but his inclusion in the so-called Panama Papers tax evasion scandal has turned off some Dutch voters.
"I voted against because I don't think the accord is a good thing for the Netherlands," said Nik Tam, 65, adding there were already "too many" countries in the EU.
Anti-immigrant far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders tweeted to supporters: "Everyone vote today. And vote against!"
- What next? -
The Netherlands is now the only member in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
Aaron Matta, senior researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice think-tank, warned of wider repercussions of a "No" vote.
"The Netherlands will perhaps have to find some way of opting out of specific provisions in the agreement," he told AFP.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned a "no" vote "could open the doors to a continental crisis".
A "No" win could also lend a boost to the "Brexit" campaign.
"If the Dutch people vote no today, it will be a incentive for the British voters to say no," Wilders said.
© 2016 AFP