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Wilders seeks to revive Dutch campaign by denouncing Turkish rallies

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders led a small protest outside Turkey’s embassy on Wednesday, denouncing its president as a dictator, as he tried to arrest his party’s slide in opinion polls with one week to go before a parliamentary election.

Turkish politicians have announced plans to address rallies in Germany and the Netherlands to drum up support among expat Turks for President Tayyip Erdogan, stirring disquiet in both countries and offering a campaign opportunity for Wilders.

He led a few dozen activists from his anti-Islam Freedom Party who unfurled a banner protesting the Turkish foreign minister’s plans to campaign for Dutch-Turkish dual nationals to vote in an upcoming referendum to expand Erdogan’s powers.

“Leave us alone, lobby in your own country, and stay away,” Wilders said of Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s plan to hold a rally in Rotterdam. The city’s mayor later said the minister’s appearance had been canceled.

“Mr Erdogan is a mere dictator,” Wilders said. “We would not allow lobbying for North Korea or Saudi Arabia in our country either,” he added, calling for the entire Turkish cabinet to be declared “persona non grata”.

Wilders’ opposition right-wing Freedom Party, which wants to shutter mosques, ban the Koran, quit the European Union and stop Muslim immigration, led opinion polls for most of last year but is now losing ground to the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA) and the far-left Socialists.

It is running second behind the pro-business liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which along with the CDA has toughened some of its rhetoric on immigration and Islam in the hope of capturing support from Wilders.

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On Tuesday, Wilders targeted Socialist leader Emile Roemer in an online campaign advert, after the latter said in a newspaper interview that “fear of Islam is talked into you”. The advert responded by listing acts that Islam supposedly punished with death, including apostasy and homosexuality.

There was no reaction from within the embassy to the protest, during which bedraggled demonstrators unfurled a banner reading “Stay away. This is our country”.

Erdogan, who survived a coup attempt last year, says he needs the expanded powers to tackle Kurdish rebels, Islamist militants and other political enemies. Critics accuse him of an authoritarian power-grab with the new constitution, and his government’s plans to campaign for it among the big diasporas in Germany and the Netherlands have met fierce criticism.

Cavusoglu, who arrived in Germany on his planned campaign tour on Tuesday, has been declared persona non grata in two German cities.

The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said his appearance there had been canceled after the owner of the location withdrew permission. “Rotterdam’s security agencies would likely have forbidden it otherwise,” he said in a letter quoted by news agency ANP.

The Dutch election is being closely watched in France and Germany, where populist anti-EU and anti-immigration politicians hope to make major gains in national elections this year and deliver upsets that could reshape European politics.

But with Wilders’ party now trailing on 14.6 percent in Peilingwijzer’s poll of polls behind Rutte’s VVD on 16.4 percent, and the Christian Democrats not far behind on 12.1 percent, that prospect may be receding.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt, Svebor Kranjc and Yves Herman; Editing by Mark Trevelyan