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Dutch voters focus on the economy

Support for Geert Wilders' far-right party falls as Europe's debt crisis deepens.

Mark Rutte, Geert Wilders
Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte (left) talks with Party for Freedom's (PVV) Geert Wilders during a debate in parliament on May 28, 2009. (Martijn Beekman/United Photos/Reuters)

BIEZELINGE, The Netherlands — “Het is de economie, domkop.”

Bill Clinton’s catch phrase “it’s the economy, stupid,” hasn’t quite entered the Dutch political vocabulary, but on the eve of an election that’s set to change the country’s political landscape, there’s no doubt what’s uppermost on voters’ minds.

“People’s biggest concern is the economy,” said Henk Korstanga, a production manager in a food canning company. “They are worried about higher taxes, mortgages, higher prices.”

The voters’ focus on the financial seems to have knocked the wind out of the previously high-flying campaign of The Netherlands’ most controversial politician, the radical rightist Geert Wilders.

In March, after some spectacular municipal election results, polls predicted Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) would become the biggest party in the June 9 parliamentary vote.

His anti-Islamic platform seemed to reflect mounting disquiet about the impact of years of immigration from Turkey and North Africa among the traditionally tolerant Dutch.

However the Greek debt crisis has heightened the realization that the rest of Europe will have to take drastic action to bring public finances under control and Dutch voters appear less willing to entrust the running of the world’s 16th-largest economy to a man whose priorities include denying health care to the children of illegal immigrants, banning the Quran and closing mosques.

Wilders’ PVV has slipped from first to fourth place in the latest opinion polls.

Accentuating Wilders’ slide is the emergence of two charismatic mainstream party leaders who have managed to divert media attention away from the antics of the platinum-blond rightist.

The battle to become prime minister looks to be a straight fight between Mark Rutte, the photogenic, 43-year-old leader of the right-of-center People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and Job Cohen, the new head of the Labor Party (PvdA). The son of secular Jewish Holocaust survivors, Cohen built up a reputation for effective administration during a nine-year stint as mayor of Amsterdam until he stepped down to run for prime minister.

Incumbent premier Jan-Peter Balkenende — a native of this sleepy village in the southern region of Zeeland — heads the other main party, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Even in his hometown, there’s a realization that the man nickednamed Harry Potter for his resemblance to the movie wizard is unlikely to extend his hold on the top job.

“He’s led us for almost 10 years, but now it’s enough. It’s not the party’s policies that need changing, but we need a new person,” said accountant Jacob Overbeeke.