The Netherlands gets ready to turn left

Today, Dutch people go to the polls for the fifth time in 10 years. Going by the latest polls, the Labour party (PvdA) is likely to become the largest party, with its leader, Diederik Samsom, expected to be appointed prime minister.

At first sight, this may look like the continuation of a Europe-wide shift to the left. Yet in France, François Hollande's victory marked a turning point in the country's economic stance. Whether the rise of the left in the Netherlands will affect the Dutch position in a similar way is questionable.

What's certain is that the Dutch political landscape is likely to fragment significantly after this election. Polls predict the new parliament will have five or six parties with at least 10% of the vote each, and four or more smaller parties. A coalition consisting of at least three parties seems inevitable.

Who would be the contenders for such a coalition? Geert Wilders' rightwing, anti-EU Freedom party (PVV) withdrew its support for the incumbent prime minister Mark Rutte's caretaker government in the spring. The PVV said it would refuse to cut pensions and healthcare to meet new European requirements for a 3% budget deficit. Wilders added: "The money we send to Greece is better spent on the elderly."

In the PVV's ranks, hopes are high that the elections will in effect become a referendum on EU membership – similar to the referendum on the European constitution in 2005, when the Netherlands voted against the treaty.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Emile Roemer's Socialist party (SP) is similarly noisy on the subject of Europe, especially the European budget deficit standard. The SP wants to keep most regulations concerning pensions, social security and healthcare in place, and is showing little willingness to compromise.

Partly because of these positions, it's unlikely that either Wilders' or Roemer's party will join the new cabinet. The centre parties share many positions on the eurozone crisis: they are all in favour of the rescue of the euro and the budget deficit standard of 3% – they only disagree on whether this standard should be applied this year or later.

The other key factor that should bar Wilders and Roemer from government is their stance on the important social reforms – such as greater flexibility of the labour market, healthcare cost containment and reform of the housing market – that have been postponed for years. Rutte's conservatives and Samsom's Labour party disagree on who should pay for healthcare, housing and employment reforms, but they do agree that reforms are inevitable. With the SP and PVV as partners in cabinet, they would become practically impossible.

Of course, even if Wilders and Roemer stayed outside government, they would influence the tone of the political debate in the Netherlands. To an extent, they have already done so.

Many have predicted that after years in the sunshine, Wilders' party would lose votes in 2012. But the latest polls only indicate a marginal drop-off. As for the Socialists: although the SP will probably not become the second-largest party, they will gain more seats.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that popular support for the euro is weakening. Opinion polls indicate a growing scepticism towards the current euro funds for southern Europe. In the last televised debate, Rutte said that no new funds should be made available for Greece, and refused to sign up to the statement saying that "everything should be done to save the euro". For now, though, such soundbites are little more than campaign rhetoric.

Chris Aalberts

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