Close-running Dutch election puts spotlight on eurozone
Dutch voters go the polls on Wednesday in a general election in a country that has often been a primary driver of closer European integration, but with many people now having serious doubts about the viability of the eurozone.
Polls this weekend put both the pro-European Dutch parties in a dead heat in the run-up to the election which has been dominated by the economic concerns linked to the currency crisis. According to some estimates, about 40 per cent of voters are still undecided, which could still lead to a surprise result.
Outgoing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte stepped up his attack on the opposition Labour Party at the weekend after it surged in opinion polls to run neck-and-neck with his own pro-austerity Liberal Party.
The Liberals and Labour would each win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, an Ipsos Synovate poll showed on Saturday night, putting the two parties in equal place for the first time. Other polls have shown Labour catching up with the Liberal Party in recent days.
Such a tight race has left some Dutch joking the country will fall into Belgium’s trap, and be unable to form a government.
Mr Rutte’s coalition government collapsed in April when his chief ally, the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, refused to support further austerity measures to meet EU budget targets. The election has highlighted a deep divide among voters over the high cost of bailing out euro zone countries and the need for budget cuts, putting the Netherlands in the spotlight because of the wider implications for Europe.
Until just a few weeks ago, it was the Socialist Party – a hard Left group led by school teacher Emile Roemer and with a track record of opposing eurozone bailouts and budget cuts – that was either in the lead or vying with the Liberals for top place.
His campaign symbol is the tomato, after the rotten fruit his supporters feel to be the just desserts of the EU-loving political establishment. Mr Roemer gained fame during the campaign by saying that, if he joins the next Dutch ruling coalition, the Netherlands would pay fines to Brussels for missing budget targets “over my dead body”.
So when Mr Rutte kicked off his election campaign two weeks ago, the Socialists bore the brunt of his attacks, and he warned voters they must choose between liberalism and socialism in the coming election.
But with Labour’s surprisingly strong comeback during the past two weeks, Mr Rutte is now focusing his attacks on his new rival.
“I note that some of Labour’s plans are extremely bad for the Netherlands,” he said in an interview with the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf published on Saturday, adding fewer jobs would be created under Labour.
Mr Rutte reiterated the comments when he took part in an election debate on national radio with Mr Roemer, who accused him of “scare-mongering”.
Labour’s surge at the expense of the Socialists is thanks largely to the impressive performance of the new Labour leader, Diederik Samsom in numerous televised election debates.
Neither the Liberals nor Labour are anywhere close to winning a majority in parliament and, as in the past, the winner would have to form a coalition government, a process which can take weeks or months.
Both Mr Rutte and Mr Samsom have emphasised their differences in policies and style, seen as a tactic to prevent their supporters from switching allegiance.
But even though they are close rivals, some politicians and analysts predict the two parties will end up as partners in a broadly pro-European coalition.
The Dutch government was one of the driving forces behind the 1993 treaty that ushered in monetary union and, eventually, the euro currency. The treaty was signed in the Dutch city of Maastricht and still bears its name.
But the 2005 “No” vote on the EU constitution and anti-EU resentments that have deepened ever since show the Netherlands now to be possibly at the forefront of a continental tipping point.
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