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Dutch to vote amid austerity angst

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The Dutch have a serious reputation when it comes to money. So it’s only natural that the euro crisis has dominated campaigning for Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in the Netherlands.

Upright Dutch burghers like to think of themselves as fiscally prudent defenders of sound finances, along with the Germans and Finns, who have joined them in opposing bailouts for Greeks and other spendthrift southerners.

But Europe’s economic woes have also radicalized voters, reflected in polls that show large numbers expected to vote for candidates who want to ban the Koran, grant constitutional rights to animals, or believe rape victims don’t get pregnant.

Despite the signs of an identity crisis among the electorate, however, the main race will be between Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-market People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the PVV, and the hard-left upstarts of the Socialist Party, whose anti-austerity platform has generated a surge of support.

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Setting out his views about the euro crisis during a TV debate last week, Rutte reminded viewers that Greece has received two EU bailouts.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Countries in trouble must do their very best. If they don’t, they can’t count on our support.”

He was more circumspect about the Netherlands’ own economy, which is also in deep trouble after slipping into recession this year.

Although low by southern European standards at 6.5 percent, unemployment stands at its highest level in almost a decade. House prices are tumbling, government debt is close to a 20-year high and the widening deficit has triggered warnings from European Union headquarters.

However, opposition to budget-slashing plans to rein in public spending brought down the center-right government in April and precipitated the early elections.

Opinions have since polarized.

“If he’s given the chance, Rutte will cut another 7 billion euros from healthcare spending and 9 billion euros from social security,” the Socialist leader Emile Roemer blasted on his party’s website. “That would only exacerbate the crisis and demolish society.”

Backed by pledges to balance the books by taxing the rich, cutting defense spending, and reducing contributions to the EU budget, Roemer’s once-marginal party is challenging the PVV’s position as the country’s largest party. However, his lackluster performance in TV debates prompted a slump in the most recent polls.

Dutch politics are complicated, even by European standards. Each of the standard European conservative, liberal, and socialist parties is divided into left and right-wing factions. Rutte’s 

is the more conservative of the two liberal parties, Roemer’s the further-left of the two socialist parties.

The other eight groups in parliament include the Party for Animals and an ultra-orthodox Calvinist party whose leader Kees van der Staaij recently agreed with US Congressman Todd Akin’s remarks that women have a natural defense mechanism that stops rape victims from becoming pregnant.

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The joker in the pack is anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders, whose far-right Party for Freedom came third in the last election in 2010. Notorious for his fiery language and blond bouffant hairstyle, Wilders seeks to ride discontent over the economic crisis by making calls for the Netherlands to ditch the euro and pull out of the EU.

Although polls show Wilders’s support to have dipped since the last election, he may do better than it appears on election day because his supporters tend to prefer remaining anonymous during surveys. Still, Wilders is unlikely to influence talks to form a coalition administration because other parties refuse to work with him.

“He may end up as one of the largest opposition parties, or maybe even the largest opposition party, but he will definitely not get into government,” said Gijs Schumacher, a political researcher at Free University in Amsterdam.

However, the biggest news during the final stretch of campaigning was the Labor Party’s spectacular comeback in the polls.

The consensual approach of its leader Diederik Samsom, a former Greenpeace campaigner, appears to have stuck a cord with voters disillusioned with mudslinging between right and left.

Samsom’s ratings improved even after a TV debate during which he took a softer line on aid for Greece.

A poll by the agency TNS Nipo last week put the PVV first with 34 seats in the 150-seat parliament. The Socialist Party came second with 28, and Labor third with 26. Wilders would get 17 seats, down from his current 24. That result would enable the formation of a broad centrist coalition that could shut out both Wilders and the Socialist Party, Samsom says.

That would please EU headquarters in Brussels and other European capitals anxious about the prospect of the country’s making a radical shift to the left or right that could scupper hopes of finding a European consensus on tackling the crisis.

Few are holding their breath for an early indication of the coalition’s makeup: Since the 1970s, it’s taken 86 days on average for Dutch politicians to agree on coalitions, and negotiations lasted more than four months after the 2010 elections before Rutte could form a government. 

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