The Netherlands faces a cliffhanger election on Wednesday, with anxiety over the euro crisis and the dismantling of the welfare state splitting the political landscape on both the left and right.
Ever since the conservative Dutch government collapsed this spring over EU-mandated budget cuts, political observers have expected Wednesday’s elections to be decided by strength of opposition to eurozone crisis measures.
Parties on the far left and right have railed against budget cuts at home and bailout packages for Greece and Spain abroad.
The far-right populist Geert Wilders has run a campaign demanding that the Netherlands withdraw from the euro and the EU itself. As of late August, the far-left Socialist party, which voted against Greek bailouts and the European emergency fund, was leading in the polls. Many members of the Dutch political elite feared that a Socialist win could plunge Dutch policy on the euro crisis into confusion.
Instead, in a stunning turnround, the centre-left Labour party has doubled its support in the past two weeks, pulling even with the governing Liberals of prime minister Mark Rutte. Labour’s new leader, the 41-year-old former Greenpeace campaigner Diederik Samsom, has profited from some aggressive debate performances and a well-executed advertising campaign, and is now seen by voters as the most trustworthy candidate in the race.
Whether the Liberals or Labour wins, the next Dutch government will most likely be a centrist coalition including both parties with a more pro-European tone than the present one. Mr Rutte has gone along with euro rescue measures negotiated in Brussels, but has insisted on tough conditions for debtor countries and resisted moves to transfer sovereignty to Brussels.
Indeed, with Labour still enjoying the momentum, Mr Samsom could end up as the next premier – a result analysts would have waved off as far-fetched just last month.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m not sure that Labour won’t beat the Liberals,” said André Krouwel, a political scientist and pollster. “Four weeks ago, I would never have said anything like that.”
The elections will probably remain closely fought until the last minute because the Dutch political landscape is highly divided, with 10 parties currently represented in parliament.
In the run-up to past elections, many voters have shifted strategically to support whichever party on their side of the aisle leads in the polls, in the hopes of making it the largest and giving it the chance to form the next coalition. Strategic voting led to similar surges for Labour in 2002, 2006, and 2010, as it rallied from far down to come within a few votes of winning, only to fall short. In the past two weeks, Labour’s support has gone from some 12 per cent of the electorate to as much as 23 per cent, with almost all of the gains coming at the expense of the Socialists.
Emile Roemer, the Socialists’ leader, who just last month was seen as a possible premier, has been reduced to assuring voters that he too would be willing to form a government with the rightwing Liberals. Mr Roemer told the Dutch press on Sunday that a cabinet including himself, the Liberals and Labour “was certainly worth considering”.
Analysts say that move risks destroying the Socialists’ carefully crafted identity as the party that can be counted on to oppose Mr Rutte’s budget cuts and tax increases and to take a sceptical eye towards European rescue measures.
Meanwhile the far-right Mr Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) have been the dog that has not barked in this campaign. Mr Wilders, known internationally as an anti-Muslim firebrand, has switched his focus to blasting Europe and the bailout packages for Greece and Spain.
Analysts had feared the anti-Europe campaign could draw heavy support, as the Dutch electorate has turned increasingly sour on the bailout packages and the euro. Instead, the PVV remains stuck at roughly 13 per cent support, less than the 16 per cent it won in the 2010 elections.
Mr Wilders has been virtually ruled out as a coalition partner because of his chaotic withdrawal of support for the government, which led to its collapse in April. But by taking a significant chunk of the rightwing voters out of play, he has made it effectively impossible for Mr Rutte to build another conservative coalition.
“Wilders is now guaranteeing that the Netherlands gets a stable centrist coalition,” said Mr Krouwel.
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