Dutch voters went to the polls on Wednesday with the centre-left Labour party and the centre-right Liberals locked neck-and-neck, in a race widely seen as a test of whether the euro crisis has soured European voters on the EU.
Labour has the momentum, as its leader Diederik Samsom has doubled the party’s support in just two weeks by winning a string of debates and may be poised to catch the popular Liberal prime minister Mark Rutte.
Whichever party wins, the elections are likely to produce a centrist coalition that is far more pro-European than the outcome expected a month ago, when euro-sceptic parties on the far left and right were on the rise.
But a win for Mr Samsom would send a more unequivocal pro-European signal than one by Mr Rutte. In the campaign’s final debate Tuesday night, Mr Rutte repeated his vows to block any further aid to Greece, while Mr Samsom said he would do whatever was need to keep Greece in the euro.
Saving the euro “means we will all have to some things that make us feel uncomfortable”, Mr Samsom said, including handing over more power to Brussels.
Labour has been challenged on the left by the Socialist party, which voted against bailouts for Greece and Spain and led in the polls over the summer. The Liberals must compete on their right with the Party for Freedom of firebrand populist Geert Wilders, who has run a campaign demanding the Netherlands abandon the euro and leave the EU altogether.
But polls suggest the Dutch public is turning away from both of the more radical parties, with the once-favoured Socialists losing a third of their support to Labour since Mr Samsom’s rise began and Mr Wilders likely to win fewer votes than in the last election. In Tuesday’s debate, Mr Rutte ridiculed Mr Wilders for his chaotic withdrawal from budget-cut talks in April, which caused the government to fall and brought on the elections.
“You’re standing on the sidelines,” Mr Rutte said, underlining the widely held belief that the PVV will be shut out of any possible coalition after the elections, regardless of its performance. “Almost no one wants to govern with you any more.”
With the eventual coalition depending on one or more smaller parties, the results may turn on whether the conservative Christian Democrats or the pro-European left-liberal D66 party gains a greater share of the vote.
That is highly unpredictable, with many voters considering placing strategic votes for various parties in order to shape the ultimate coalition. Data from pollster Maurice de Hond showed 27 per cent of voters remained unsure of which party they would support on the eve of the election.
At the Haagse Hogeschool, a college in The Hague, 18-year-old Joeri Damhuis said he was not yet certain who he would cast his first-ever vote for. He had been leaning towards the Socialists, but his friends were talking him into leaning towards Labour.
“They have a chance of winning. You don’t want to waste your vote,” Mr Damhuis said.
In recent years, media impressions have begun to trump longstanding party loyalties in determining voters’ preferences, exacerbating the uncertainty.
In Haarlem, two middle-aged women entering a polling station said they were still uncertain which circles they would mark when they entered the booth.
“”Terrible, isn’t it?” said one. “We always used to vote Christian Democrat, but now we’re thinking about the Socialists. You vote for the man, really, and [Socialist leader Emile] Roemer seems like such a nice man.”