By Thomas Escritt and Sara Webb
AMERSFOORT, The Netherlands (Reuters) - An untested leftist party is taking the lead ahead of the Dutch election next month, reflecting resentment over austerity and signaling that one of the euro zone's core northern countries could reject German demands to tighten public deficits.
Opinion surveys show the Socialist Party could out-poll the pro-business Liberal Party on September 12, suggesting it can win between a fifth and a quarter of the seats in parliament.
That would put the Socialist Party and its leader, Emile Roemer, in a position to form a coalition where they can influence policy on Europe despite having no experience of government beyond the local level.
The appeal of Roemer, a 50-year-old former teacher with a toothy smile and a down-to-earth manner, lies in his very ordinariness. He takes his holidays on the Dutch island of Texel, enjoys Italian food and says he's "no bookworm". A favorite movie of the man who could be the Netherlands' next prime minister is "The Silence of the Lambs".
"Of course at local level it's about roads and schools, and at national level it's much harder, you are dealing with Europe. But he understands compromise," Gijs Moes, a Liberal politician who worked with Roemer in local government, told Reuters.
HOLY THREE PERCENT
One area where the two parties differ and where the Socialists are making waves is Europe.
The Socialist Party opposed the euro before it was introduced, although it does not want to scrap it now, and defied a europhile consensus by successfully campaigning against the European constitution in a 2005 referendum.
Roemer wants to preserve welfare benefits for the poor at a time when Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Liberals is pushing for spending cuts to bring the Dutch budget deficit below 3 percent of economic output by 2013, in line with European rules.
"Three percent is not a holy percentage," Tiny Kox, a Socialist powerbroker, told Reuters, expressing a view that resonates with left-wing parties elsewhere in Europe.
"The idea was not to run too big a deficit. In the long run, the deficit should tend towards zero," Kox said, interviewed at party headquarters, a modernist building in the city of Amersfoort.
The party rejects austerity - at home and elsewhere in the euro zone - and all charges of extremism.
"This is a normal, Krugman view of how to get out of the crisis," Kox said, referring to the Nobel Prize-winning economist who has criticized European countries for focusing more on deficit reduction than on economic growth.
Roemer caused alarm this month when he said the Netherlands would refuse to pay a penalty if it failed to meet the EU's three percent deficit limit. His party also wants a referendum on the new fiscal compact, a core element in Europe's attempts to fix its debt crisis.
Jan Kees de Jager, the finance minister who is from the Christian Democrat Party, said Roemer's comments had undermined confidence and pushed up interest rates.
Political elites sniggered when Roemer appeared to confuse the European Stability Mechanism, a euro zone rescue fund, with the European Central Bank, in a recent parliamentary debate, but the gaffe has not dented the party's support.
However, forming a coalition will not be easy: an alliance with its two natural allies, Labour and GreenLeft, would be unlikely to net it enough seats to form a government.
The Socialists would still need to turn further afield, perhaps to the socially liberal D66 Party or the Christian Democrats. But both these parties are pro-European and in favour of fiscal discipline, begging the question of who would be willing to compromise.
Moes, of the Liberals, acknowledged policy differences with the Socialists but said that did not mean they could not work together in coalition - a partnership neither Prime Minister Rutte nor Roemer has ruled out.
"I do not exclude anyone, but it is a party that stands a long way from us," Rutte told Reuters as he kicked off his campaign in Rotterdam on Saturday, adding that voters had a choice between a statist and a liberal vision of society.
A BROAD CHURCH
Political analysts say the Socialists have transformed themselves from a very marginal extremist party, with roots in a 1970s Maoist group, to a social democratic, centre-left party.
The party's promises to protect state benefits appeal to lower income, left-wing voters who have been hit by budget cuts.
"It's the only left-wing party left," said Laurens Buijs, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam who plans to vote for it. "It's an activist party."
Elwin, an IT consultant who did not want to give his full name, said he voted for the GreenLeft Party in 2010 but is considering switching to the Socialists in this election.
"I'm highly educated, I have a good job, I'm paid well, but I think the wealth could be more evenly distributed," he said.
He does have reservations over the party's stance on Europe, he said, and was horrified by Roemer's comments that he would only pay a fine to the EU "over my dead body".
"We should work together with Europe to sort out the mess," Elwin said.
LITTLE RED BOOK
In some ways, the Socialist Party looks like a throwback to a bygone era.
It ditched Maoism soon after it was founded, partly because Mao Zedong's decision to welcome U.S. president Richard Nixon to China was a step too far for the Dutch radicals.
Today, its views are set out in a little red book, while its lawmakers must give the 95,000 euro ($120,000) salary they earn as parliamentarians to the party and receive a stipend of roughly half that in return. If it forms a government, its ministers will be expected to give half their salary to charity.
With this extra funding contributing around a third of the party's income, it is able to finance education and other programs, even providing free legal advice clinics.
Its logo is a stylized tomato, a nod to the vegetables with which activists pelted opponents in more confrontational times. During a national cleaners' strike three years ago, its activists were on hand distributing soup at the picket lines.
It wants to tax people earning above 150,000 euros ($190,000) at 65 percent, compared to a current top 52 percent band for those earning 50,000 euros ($62,500) or more. It says it will hike taxes on large corporations in order to cut taxes on the small businesses that are the backbone of the Dutch economy.
Its tax policies prompted Dutch glossy magazine Quote, a cross between Fortune and Vogue that caters to the rich and famous, to put "Stop the SP" on its latest cover, saying if Roemer won, the wealthy would flee to Switzerland.
Inside, it superimposed Roemer's face on a photo from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" showing the Socialist leader as a blood-spattered murderer.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)