The Netherlands goes to the polls

By RNW

One of the most exciting Dutch elections in years is reaching its climax. About ten million voters are expected to go to the polls on Wednesday to choose a new parliament and, indirectly, a new government.

The right-wing liberal VVD party, led by Mark Rutte, has enjoyed a solid lead for most of the campaign, thanks to widespread concerns about the economy. The only party with a chance to overtake the VVD is Labour, led by former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen. Labour has been straining to close the gap with the VVD in the last week of the campaign. But the latest opinion polls taken before voting began looked like it was too little, too late.

If Rutte wins the election, it will be thanks to his party's solid reputation for balancing the country's books. The economy has dominated a campaign that got under way in the wake of the Greek crisis and concern about the euro. Suddenly last year's financial crisis, and Netherlands' rapidly growing public debt, came back into sharp focus. Many see the VVD as the party ideally suited to lead the country back onto solid financial ground.

Not one of the Netherlands' many political parties disagrees that fiscal austerity is necessary. Parties across the spectrum, from the Socialists to the fundamentalist Christian SGP, are calling for massive cuts in government spending. The difference lies in how much, who will be affected, and how quickly the cuts have to come.

The VVD wants to cut the most. This has led to criticism of Rutte form all quarters, which grew as he solidified his front-runner status. One of the Rutte's natural allies, Jan Peter Balkenende of the Christian Democrats, the incumbent prime minister, called the VVD proposals "cold-hearted reform". Others have called the VVD platform "anti-social" and "disastrous for the country". He has been accused of being an anti-Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

But the criticism has not gotten any traction. Rutte has been able to respond without appearing to be on the defensive, and his party's image has not been badly damaged.

Winning the election, however, may turn out to be a mixed blessing. Forming the next government coalition is going to be particularly difficult. Some polls predict only one three-party coalition appears possible: a VVD, CDA and PVV government.

While populist PVV party leader Geert Wilders has a solid following, he is also polarising. More Dutch people oppose him than support him. Plus, given his party's failure to join coalitions in the cities of Almere and The Hague after last spring's local elections, many wonder if Wilders is ready to make the compromises necessary to govern.

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In addition, the next government faces the thankless task of cutting government programmes. The Netherlands has not faced such difficult economic times since the 1980s. It will take consummate political skills to usher the country through the next few years.

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Gepubliceerd in:
Election 2010