Leading Dutch parties shore up vote before election

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 11, 2012 10:35 AM
Leading Dutch parties shore up vote before election

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The two parties running neck-and-neck to become the largest in the Dutch parliament were spending their last day before a general election trying to gather voters from the political fringes on Tuesday.

At the end of a campaign that has been dominated by the euro zone crisis and the question of whether the Netherlands can afford its generous welfare state, acting prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberal party emphasized its euroscepticism, while the center-left Labor Party promised a defense of social cohesion.

The election will be crucial in deciding whether the Netherlands, a core euro zone country, remains Berlin's ally in the fight for fiscal discipline across the zone, as Rutte himself acknowledged in an interview with Dutch TV.

Saying he was committed to a "Hague-Berlin" axis in favor of fiscal discipline, he warned: "If another party wins, there is the threat of a 'Hague-Paris axis' emerging. And France is the country of high state debt, high taxes and low economic growth."

Rutte has been the frontrunner since his government fell in April when anti-European ally Geert Wilders refused to back a painful cuts package designed to lower the budget deficit.

But in recent weeks, buoyed by a series of assured performances in television debates, Diederik Samsom has brought his Labor Party to the point where many analysts believe it could inch into the lead on polling day.

A poll on Monday showed the two parties each winning 35 seats, while a new poll on Tuesday showed the Liberals winning 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament to Labor's 34.

On Tuesday, both parties stressed their differences in the hope of attracting support from fringe parties to their respective left and right.

The party that edges ahead will almost certainly get to name the prime minister.

Rutte, who has already ruled out a third bail-out for Greece, stressed his hard-headed approach to the European Union in blunt terms, telling newspaper Algemeen Dagblad his approach to the 27-member bloc was "pragmatic".

"I have no time for the Europe of the blue flag and the little stars, some elevated ideal," he said, delivering a message that will appeal to supporters of Wilders' anti-immigration, anti-Europe Freedom Party.

His party colleague Stef Blok upped the ante by saying countries should be suspended from the EU's passport-free Schengen zone if they failed to protect their borders adequately.

Meanwhile, Samsom stressed his social democratic party had most in common with the hard-left Socialist Party, whose voters he needs to overtake the Liberals on polling day.

"The Netherlands needs a community approach instead of the 'every man for himself' policy of the Liberals," Samsom told the newspaper Spits.

Samsom, who wants the Netherlands to be given more time to meet its own European Union budget targets, has said he would give Greece more time to meet its obligations.

But for all their apparent enmity, the two parties may yet be forced to enter coalition with each other. Together, the two could command a comfortable parliamentary majority with the support of just one more party, such as the socially liberal centrist D66 - an alliance which has worked twice before.

Alternative coalitions would be far more unwieldy, needing the support of five or more parliamentary parties.

Rutte seemed to acknowledge this in interviews on Tuesday, ruling out coalition with Wilders, who he said "runs away when the going gets difficult."

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Angus MacSwan)