Dutch Labour leader impresses while Socialists flounder as election nears


JUST 48 hours before voting begins in the Dutch general election, polling indicates that an early surge of support for the anti-austerity Socialist Party has fallen away and that floating voters are gravitating towards Labour – which is now neck-and-neck with the Liberals of caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte.

It has been an extraordinary reversal of fortune for the Socialists. Even before the election was called, party leader Emile Roemer, a former teacher, was the Netherlands’ most popular politician. However lacklustre performances in a series of TV debates have apparently sunk his chances of becoming PM.

“It seems I was too nice,” he said after one television outing.

It has been no less surprising a turnaround for Labour leader Diederik Samsom. After a less than impressive start, it has been television once again that has made the difference, with strong performances in front of the cameras convincing the Dutch public that the nuclear physicist and former Greenpeace activist is a real contender.

Mr Samsom (41), who became party leader only last March, has also gained by running an “American-style” campaign, touring the country accompanied by his wife and children, including his disabled daughter. Her appearance caused some initial controversy over the degree to which family should be “used” in politics. They have also appeared in TV ads.

One way or another, it has been a more personal approach than the Netherlands is used to and it appears to have resonated with the electorate.

“It’s been a sensational turnaround,” says Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at the Free University of Amsterdam. “Samsom is surging ahead. He actually outperformed during the TV debates. He attacked the prime minister – regarded as our best debater – on core political and economic issues and he won.”

Political columnist Arend Jan Boekestijn of Utrecht University, agrees. “There were some awkward moments in the debates when Roemer didn’t seem on top of his dossier, even seemed to lose the thread. It was painful to watch.

“On the other hand, Samsom had all the assurance of a prime minister. He has led a brilliant campaign.”

Since right-wing Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders pulled the plug on the minority Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government back in April, it has been a remarkable lead-in. If the early stages were characterised by huge public indifference and more than a degree of cynicism, the closing stages have been characterised more by confusion – some would argue purposely generated – over key issues.

Mortgages, always popular ground, are a good example. Given the perilous state of the Dutch economy, the value of property has fallen dramatically, with as many as one-third of the country’s mortgage-holders in negative equity – a situation, given the scarcity of land, most thought could never happen.

The caretaker coalition has promised to bring the country’s budget deficit below 3 per cent of GDP next year, as a result needs to increase its tax take, and has warned that interest relief on mortgage payments may have to be reduced or in the case of interest-only mortgages, for instance, abolished altogether. That has been the position of the government and of Mr Rutte as prime minister.

On the hustings however, as leader of the Liberals, Mr Rutte has attempted to cast himself as a protector of mortgage interest relief, saying on Friday it was “an absolute top priority”.

However, since nobody knows the shape of the next coalition, nobody knows what Mr Rutte will or can actually do – if he is returned to power. Even Liberal MPs, defending their seats, are angry at the lack of clarity.

As a result of this confusion, the number of voters who remain undecided is unusually high. It was put at about 50 per cent a month ago and was still at a third yesterday. Those undecided have had two years to watch the current government and remain disenchanted, meaning they are looking for an alternative. Two days from decision time, that is good news for Labour.

Yesterday’s poll by Maurice de Hond put the liberals on 33 seats, with Labour just one behind, the Socialists third on 23, followed by the Freedom Party on 19. This would indicate a Liberal-Labour coalition, perhaps joined by the social democratic D66 – what is known in the Netherlands as a “purple coalition”.

The main difficulty facing a Dutch Lib-Lab coalition will be – surprise, surprise – Europe.

Mr Rutte’s government fell because of its determination to meet euro zone budget targets and impose austerity. By contrast, Mr Samsom argues that too much austerity will hurt the economy and wants more time to meet Brussels’ requirements.

Can they together square that politico-economic circle? Perhaps that is exactly what the Dutch electorate wants to achieve.