'Purple coalition' may be on cards again as Dutch head to the polls

Wed, Sep 12, 2012, 01:00

THE DUTCH electorate is expected to shy away from a Socialist government today, giving its politicians a broadly pro-European but increasingly anti-austerity mandate. Caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals are neck and neck with Labour to become the country’s largest party.

As voting begins this morning, the final polls of the campaign gave the Liberals 35 seats and Labour 34 in the 150-seat parliament, placing both Mr Rutte (43) and Labour leader Diederik Samsom (41), who took over the reins only last March, tantalisingly within reach of becoming prime minister.

Those figures have led to suggestions that the Netherlands is once again on the brink of a “purple coalition” between the Liberals, Labour, and the smaller social democratic party, D66, which could take as many as 11 seats – a total between them of 80 or 81, a comfortable working majority.

Purple coalitions – a name drawn from the mix of the Liberals’ and Labour’s colours – were in government consistently between 1994 and 2002.

While a purple coalition would be broadly welcomed in Brussels and Berlin as more pro-European than a government led by the Socialists, who have vehemently opposed every single euro zone rescue package, the reality is that there are significant policy differences between Mr Rutte and Mr Samsom that could prove insurmountable.

Mr Rutte has been a consistent ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, advocating tough fiscal and economic rectitude, and insisting on cuts in public spending of €13 billion in 2013 to bring Holland’s budget deficit below 3 per cent of GDP. He is also opposed to further aid for Greece, declaring during the campaign, “Enough is enough”.

Mr Samsom, by contrast, is opposed to austerity on the grounds that it will damage economic growth and hit the less well-off. He says the 3 per cent budget deficit should be a target and open to negotiation rather than an absolute – and wants Greece to be given more time to meet the demands of the EU/IMF/ECB troika.

Even if the Liberals and Labour perform as well as expected, recent political experience shows it is not inevitable that they will take power together.

Although the Liberals took 31 seats and Labour 30 in the 2010 election, Mr Rutte went on to form a minority coalition with Christian Democrats and support from the opposition benches of Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party.

Because of those ideological differences, Mr Rutte has said a purple coalition is both “practically impossible” and “a long way off”. Mr Samsom took a similar view, saying that while a coalition with the Liberals would be “tricky”, a deal with the Socialists would be like “a warm bath”.

On the other hand, Mr Rutte’s preferred partners, the Christian Democrats, are regarded as having lost touch with their traditional support base, and are expected to drop from 21 seats in 2010 to perhaps as low as 13.

Even Mr Wilders, who appeared to be gaining support with his opposition to the EU in the early stages of the election, has fallen back – and if the polls are correct could actually lose at least five seats, dropping from 24 to 19.

At the same time, Socialist leader Emile Roemer, who started the campaign on an anti-austerity high, and just three weeks ago looked like a prime minister-in-waiting, seems unable to stop the slide started by a series of poor TV performances. The polls say the SP’s 2010 total of 15 seats should increase to about 20 – a long way from the 30-plus anticipated a short time ago.

The problem for the Netherlands is that despite today’s vote, the tortuous process of putting together coalitions means the country may not have a government much before Christmas or even the new year.

The longest it has ever taken was 208 days, in 1977. In 2010 it took an unusually brief four months.