With less than two weeks to go before Dutch voters head for the polls, and half of the electorate still describing itself as undecided, all political parties in the Netherlands are ramping up their campaigns with a vigor quite unprecedented in Dutch politics.
Where polling figures in the wake of local elections in March revealed political uncertainty before anything else and no three party majority seemed possible at the time, the situation today is slightly less complicated as for the first time in their postwar history, the liberals will likely claim victory and possibly deliver the prime minister.
Incumbent Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende hasn’t done well in the polls nor in the three televised debates that have taken place so far. His party of Christian conservatives currenty holds 41 seats in parliament; the polls give them somewhere between 21 and 26 instead.
Labor, which pulled out of its coalition with the Christian Democrats last February because it refused to prolong the Netherlands’ participation in ISAF, nominated former Amsterdam major Job Cohen to lead the party into the election. He managed to more than double the socialists’ popularity in the polls but has performed poorly in the debates since and is steadily losing support.
According to all the polls, the liberal party, led by 43-year old Mark Rutte, wins the most seats, from 22 in parliament today to somewhere between 33 and 37 depending on the polling bureau.
Rutte was written off as a lightweight when he took over the party leadership in 2006 but has built credibility in recent months by promising to cut government spending and lower taxes once in power. The liberals are traditionally regarded as the party best equipped to balance the budget and have repeatedly delivered the country’s finance minister in the past. With deep spending cuts ahead, the party favors small government, individual responsibility and economic modernization. If they maintain their current support, the liberals may well turn out to deliver the prime minister for the first time in almost a hundred years after June 9.
The liberal party also campaigns on law and order issues and a promise to curb non-Western immigration. It has to compete with the more radical faction of Geert Wilders on this front who is renowned for his strong positions on reducing the supposedly growing cultural influence of Islam. His Freedom Party enjoyed a spike in popularity around the time of local elections in March but didn’t manage to maintain its support when economic issues came to dominate the agenda. People don’t seem to care so much about what Wilders describes as the “Islamization” of Dutch society anymore. They care more about jobs and being able to afford their mortgage.
The liberals’ pledge not to allow any change in home mortgage interest deduction is something many homeowners like to hear while unemployment hovers near 6 percent.
A center-right coalition of liberals and Christian Democrats appears most likely at this stage. Rutte has more or less rejected the possibility of coming to a government with Labor while the parties on the left do not hold a majority on their own. A government on the right does need support from the center however unless it wants to subject itself to the whims of Geert Wilders.