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Dutch voters focus on the economy

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

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.”