Dutch voters focus on the economy

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.

Support for the Labor Party surged when Cohen was appointed leader in March. As mayor of the country’s biggest city, he championed a policy of outreach to the city’s large immigrant population and is credited with defusing tensions and successful integration. However in recent weeks, Rutte has taken on some of the far-right’s anti-crime and tough-on-immigration policies and overtaken Cohen in the polls.

Recent opinion surveys suggest Rutte’s VVD will win about 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament, followed by Labor with 28, the Christian Democrats with 25 and Wilder’s PVV with 17.

Such a result would likely see Rutte become prime minister, in a center-right alliance with the Christian Democrats. However, they would need to bring in other parties to secure a majority in the House.

The pro-business VVD could find it difficult to work with Cohen’s Laborites and if he can’t gather sufficient support from smaller liberal and green parties, Rutte may be tempted to bring Wilders into a coalition government.

Rutte has pointedly refused to rule out an alliance with Wilders.

“The main point is that there is a government that makes the Netherlands stronger after this crisis,” he said recently. “The difference between the VVD and Labor has not been so wide since the 1970s.”

Far from the multicultural urban areas of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam, even voters in this conservative, rural heartland are wary of the prospect of Wilders entering the government.

“He says things that are in the minds of many people which other politicians are afraid to say, but what he says is not good,” said Joannes Guiljam, a furniture store manager, who votes for a small Christian conservative party.

In terms of foreign policy, whatever new government emerges, it’s unlikely to reverse the parliamentary vote that calls for most of the country’s 2,000 combat troops in Afghanistan to come home this year.

Prodded by Wilders’ eurosceptic rhetoric, the VVD has taken a harder line on the Dutch contribution to the European Union budget or EU immigration rules. However one leading expert says that even the need for the Netherlands to dig deep to fund the EU bailout for Greece has not led the electorate to turn against Europe.

“Yes Greece has been annoying, but on the other hand we see in the Netherlands that stricter measures in Europe are needed … there is support for the euro,” explained Adriaan Schout, head of European studies at the Clingendael international relations institute in The Hague.

“The Netherlands knows it’s a small country. Globally we need Europe. The EU is very important for trade, even though there are very many complaints about the budget.”