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Dutch polls a close race in uncertain times for Europe
by Staff Writers
The Hague (AFP) Sept 9, 2012

Outgoing Dutch PM takes aim as Labour draws level
The Hague (AFP) Sept 8, 2012 - Outgoing Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte Saturday took aim at his main rival ahead of the Dutch vote next week, as his slender lead over Labour dissolved in the latest opinion polls.

Four days before elections to choose a new parliament, a late poll result put Diederik Samsom's Labour Party (PvdA) neck-and-neck with Rutte's previously dominant VVD party.

"I don't see them as a threat to me," Rutte told the conservative daily tabloid De Telegraaf in an interview published Saturday, "but as a threat to the Netherlands."

Over the last two weeks, opinion polls have tracked the meteoric rise of Samsom's pro-Europe PvdA, which has closed on the VVD.

Finally on Saturday night, Dutch public broadcaster NOS, on its website, put both parties at 35 seats in their "political barometer".

The party that wins Wednesday's elections will be in charge of forming a new coalition government in the 150-seat lower house, and a new prime minister is chosen from its ranks -- usually the party leader.

In his interview with De Telegraaf, Rutte warned of the consequences of a Labour win.

""We'll see fewer jobs and the return of waiting lists in health care, he said. "This is dangerous for the Netherlands."

He claimed Labour's policies would see "76,000 jobs lost" while his party planned to create 285,000 new ones.

Asked whether he would consider forming a so-called "purple" coalition which would include the Liberals, Labour and the pro-Europe centre-right D66 party to get a majority in parliament, Rutte said it would be a "difficult choice."

Purple is the term derived for a coalition between the three parties, whose colours are blue, red and green.

"A purple cabinet, I think is a long way away," Rutte said.

But Samsom hit back, saying from the campaign trail in Utrecht that he was "surprised" by Rutte's attack.

"We shouldn't campaign by trying to scare each other," Samsom said.

"I thought that we were going to campaign with our own policies in order to draw voters towards us. Not by saying how bad the others are. I don't think anyone wants that."

Political scientist Andre Krouwel said Rutte's claims were an indication that the VVD, which won 31 seats in 2010 polls, ahead of the PvdA's 30, was feeling the heat from Labour's rising popularity.

"Labour is getting really close -- and the VVD must be feeling quite anxious that their own election strategies aren't working that well," he told AFP earlier, before the latest polls were released.

Samsom took over the reins of a dysfunctional Labour Party in March.

At the time the party had seen its popularity slump in opinion polls to the equivalent of a mere 14 seats. Two weeks ago, the PvdA was still sitting at 18 seats in polls.

But a campaign blitz that saw Samsom taking the initiative in a series of televised debates seemed to have galvanised many undecided voters earning the former Greenpeace activist the title of the "comeback kid" of Dutch politics.

Fellow party members however claimed Samsom's campaign success had already started earlier this year when he was chosen to lead the party, after which he set out to meet ordinary citizens throughout the country.

The Netherlands votes Wednesday to elect a new parliament for the second time in two years after a tight race dominated by economic uncertainty thanks to Europe's seemingly endless debt crisis.

A resurgent Labour (PvdA), led by Diederik Samsom, has drawn level with outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte's leading Liberal VVD party at 35 seats each in the 150-seat Lower House, according to the latest NOS poll published Saturday.

Rutte, who became the first Liberal Dutch premier since World War I in 2010, has gone on the offensive, calling the PvdA "dangerous for the Netherlands" in a newspaper interview Saturday.

He claimed that should Labour win, jobs would be lost and long queues at hospitals reminiscent of previous Labour governments would return. Samsom dismissed the claims.

Both 45-year-old Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the second-placed PvdA led by former Greenpeace activist Samsom, 41, have taken on the eurocrisis and austerity as just one of many election themes.

It was a dispute over budget cuts to bring the Netherlands, the eurozone's fifth-largest economy, back to below a European Union three-percent deficit target that led to the collapse of Rutte's minority coalition in April.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, the budget cuts that are hitting Dutch pockets hard are again weighing heavily on the minds of some 12.5 million eligible voters.

"One of the most important issues in the election is the economic crisis and austerity," Andre Krouwel, political scientist at Amsterdam's Free University, told AFP.

Both the Liberals and Labour are pro-Europe but because of spending cuts to pay for spendthrift southern European countries they are faced with an electorate that is increasingly hostile towards Brussels.

The two leading parties are offering different solutions, said Krouwel.

"While the VVD is for strict austerity" including cutting the number of civil servants to bring the budget deficit below the EU's ceiling by next year, Labour "believes in a certain amount of investment to kickstart the economy."

Opposed to austerity, the PvdA plans to reduce the budget to balance it by 2017 while not worrying too much about getting the deficit below the Brussels-imposed target by next year.

"In a sense, the VVD is closer to somebody like Germany's (Chancellor) Angela Merkel, while the PvdA would be closer to France's Francois Hollande," said Krouwel.

Parties such as the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) of platinum-haired politician Geert Wilders -- which made exiting the EU and the eurozone its central theme -- are not benefiting because people "realise that leaving Europe is not an option," added Krouwel.

Polls showed the PVV by Saturday with 19 seats, down five from its 24 garnered in the 2010 elections.

But less than a week ahead of the elections -- the fifth in a decade -- many voters still remain undecided, fed up with promises made by politicians, political communications professor Claes de Vreese of the Amsterdam University told AFP.

A study published by Dutch polling agency Ipsos Synovate broadcast on national television on Thursday said as many as 43 percent of all voters have yet to make up their minds.

"Anything can still happen," De Vreese told AFP.

The aftermath of the polls could also see a long period of political wrangling to form a coalition, amid Europe's swirling debt crisis when swift decisions need to be taken.

"We are dealing with a politically very fragmented landscape," said De Vreese. "But most voters want a stable coalition (government)."


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Dutch Labour leader Samsom seen as PM after meteoric rise
Utrecht, Netherlands (AFP) Sept 8, 2012
Dutch Labour leader Diederik Samsom handed out roses and promised a new Europe as he campaigned Saturday to achieve what seemed impossible just weeks ago: become the Netherlands' next prime minister. "The Netherlands needs a party that understands that it's only with a properly functioning Europe that the Netherlands can function, only with a Europe that grows can the Netherlands have growth ... read more

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