Dutch begin voting in divisive election

AAP
Dutch PM Rutte ahead in late polls

The Dutch have begun voting in an election seen as a test of anti-establishment and anti-immigrant sentiment in the middle of a fiery dispute with Turkey and at a time of doubts about the future of the European Union.

Up to 13 million voters will determine which parties will win the most parliamentary seats. Polls showed the centre-right VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte with a small lead over the PVV (Party for Freedom) of anti-Islam and anti-EU firebrand Geert Wilders.

Polls show four other parties are expected to gain more than 10 seats, including the centrist D66, Green-Left, the Socialist Party and the social democrat Labor Party (PvdA), which could lead to a lengthy process to form the government.

Polling stations across the country will close at 0700 AEDT Thursday.

The vote is the first of three this year seen as a test of anti-establishment sentiment in the European Union and the bloc's chances of survival after the surprise victory of EU-sceptic Donald Trump in the United States and Britain's 2016 vote to exit the union.

France chooses its next president, with far-right Marine Le Pen set to make the second-round run-off in May, while in September right-wing eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany, which has attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door refugee policy, will probably win its first lower house seats.

Political risk consultants Eurasia Group said government formation was likely to be lengthy and could result in a weak coalition that would determine European Union policy at a critical time for the bloc.

Rutte, who is hoping Dutch economic recovery will win him backing, has been insistent on one thing - that he will neither accept the PVV as a coaliton partner nor rely on Wilders to support a minority government, as was the case in 2010-2012.

The prime minister accuses Wilders of treachery for withdrawing support and creating a political crisis at a time of deep economic troubles.

"I will not work with such a party, Mr Wilders, not in a cabinet nor with you supporting from outside. Not, never, not," Rutte told Wilders in the only TV debate between the two, which was watched on Monday by 2.28 million viewers.