Hard Times Hit Rich Holland Dutch Vote Hinges On Euro Crisis

As the euro crisis comes to a head, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could lose an important partner in her fight for a stable currency. Even if incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte wins Wednesday's election in the Netherlands, he will have to make concessions in what are likely to be difficult coalition talks.
Leading candidates (from left to right) Diederik Samsom, Sybrand Haersma van Buma, Geert Wilders and Mark Rutte compete in a balloon-blowing contest for a children's show.

Leading candidates (from left to right) Diederik Samsom, Sybrand Haersma van Buma, Geert Wilders and Mark Rutte compete in a balloon-blowing contest for a children's show.

Foto: Robin Utrecht/ dpa

The campaign ad in which Diederik Samsom declares the Netherlands can still have everything in spite of it all is just 15 seconds long. "I'm fighting for a strong economy and social cohesion," the top candidate for the social-democratic Labor Party (PVDA) says. He stands for a country that can both work its way out of the recession and ensure the welfare and education of its people. "That's how we make the Netherlands stronger and more caring," Samsom assures, confidently.

With his impressive rally in the final leg of the national election campaign, the 41-year-old moderate has become the last-minute surprise of the intense political race. The latest polls show the vote could turn into a neck and neck nailbiter between Samsom's Labor Party and the governing conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) when the country goes to the polls on Wednesday. A Sunday opinion survey showed both parties were likely to get 35 seats each in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, the Tweede Kamer.

But even if Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD manages a victory in the end, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could still lose an important ally in the fight for stricter European fiscal policy. So far, the Dutch have stood at Germany's side when it comes to disciplining the euro zone's troubled members. But difficult coalition talks loom for austerity advocate Rutte, who is likely to see his popularity slide, forcing him to make concessions to coalition partners.

The Dutch democratic system is highly susceptible to homemade crises. In the recent past, no coalition has managed to govern for a full legislative period. Most recently the prime minister's minority government collapsed after right-wing populist Geert Wilders  of the Party for Freedom (PVV) announced it would no longer cooperate with the coalition. In recent weeks, it appears that voters have been desperately searching for alternatives to the established parties.

Socialist Harnesses Anti-EU Sentiment

For example, the opposition Socialist Party (SP) is having its moment in the sun with its jovial leading candidate, 50-year-old Boxmeer elementary school teacher Emile Roemer. The former Maoist offshoot party has seen its popularity double  among voters with its broad euroskepticism. Roemer has spoken out polemically against the European Commission's austerity dictates, which call for the country to reduce its budget deficit to under 3 percent of gross domestic product next year.

Responding to a journalist's question of whether he would be willing to pay penalty payments to the European Union if the government in The Hague exceeded borrowing caps, the left-wing party leader told the daily Het Financeele Dagblad: "Over my dead body." Instead, Roemer's campaign has focused on the traditional left-wing approach -- public before private. The Socialist wants to help the wavering Dutch economy back on its feet through public investment. He categorically rejects tough austerity measures like those being suggested by 45-year-old Prime Minister Rutte. "The economic policy that Brussels wants to dictate to us is downright antisocial," he says, because of the impact it would have on the Netherlands' cradle-to-grave social welfare system.

Though Roemer and his party's affability are factors in record poll support for the time being, they may lack the endurance that could ultimately decide the election. "There were some awkward moments where Roemer didn't seem on top of his dossier, which is always a painful thing to watch," historian and political columnist Arend Jan Boekestijn recently told the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, his opponent Samsom has conducted a "brilliant campaign," he added.

Samsom Takes the Middle Ground

On the one side, there is Prime Minister Rutte, who wants to impose the toughest austerity measures seen in modern Dutch history. And, on the other, there is Socialist Roemer, who wants to rack up even more debt. Meanwhile, Labor Party candidate Samsom represents a balance between those extremes. His message is one of cost-cutting within reason, and it appeals to the business community. "The great era of polarization is over," says Bernard Wientjes, the head of the Dutch employers association, adding that he hopes for "a step back towards the center."

Samsom, a smart nuclear physicist and former Greenpeace activist from Groningen, has been most convincing in television debates. He has only led his party for a few months, but has deftly used the campaign to gain prominence. Clever, cheeky and eloquent, he is so relaxed in even the most staged of moments that it seems as though it's all he has done for years.

Samsom has also included his family in the campaign, which is relatively unusual in Dutch politics. After appearing publicly with his wife and two children, he has surpassed even Prime Minister Rutte's popularity. One poll showed that some 47 percent of respondents wanted Samsom as their leader, while just 40 percent said they preferred the incumbent. Of course, Holland is a representative, parliamentary democracy and its citizens do not directly elect their prime minister.

Hard Times

Meanwhile, right-wing populist Geert Wilders seems to have checked out of the campaign altogether. Other than celebrating his 49th birthday at one point on the campaign trail, he has had little to smile about. For some eight years, Wilders incited a populist debate in the Netherlands with tirades against the EU and immigrants. With statements coming from him like, "Our stores are being robbed and our jobs stolen," his tone in this campaign has been no different. What has changed this time around is that his political adversaries and the media have reacted with boredom to the far-right provocations. Mainstream Dutch voters don't put their trust in him solving the euro crisis or enacting responsible fiscal policies.

The Netherlands remains one of Europe's richest countries, but even the citizens of Queen Beatrix's kingdom have come to feel that we are living in hard times. Unemployment is at an unusually high 6.5 percent, the economy is stagnating and hundreds of thousands of home owners have lost large sums of money in the real estate crisis. Feeling vulnerable, the middle class fears its prosperity is in danger. At the same time, achievements made over the decades in Holland's social system are potentially threatened for the first time. The comfortable serenity of the Netherlands, it appears, is under threat.

This is compounded by the fact that important decisions could be delayed even after the election, because coalition building is traditionally difficult in the country. Every party that reaches even 0.67 percent of the vote makes it into parliament, resulting in a complex coalition puzzle following almost every election. Even a "lavender coalition" made up of the Labor Party, the People's Party and the social-liberal D66 party is unlikely to achieve a parliamentary majority. As such, all of the top candidates are keeping their options open until Wednesday night.

Asked about his intentions, high flyer Diederik Samsom simply said: "We want to be the biggest party."

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