Dutch liberal leader topping polls ahead of next week's election

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Policy divisions likely to prolong talks with possible coalition partners, writes ARTHUR BEESLEYin Amsterdam

DUTCH LIBERAL leader Mark Rutte has seized a commanding lead in polls before national elections next Wednesday, but deep policy divisions with his prospective coalition partners point to prolonged talks.

Mr Rutte has alarmed some observers by leaving the door open for a three-way deal with anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders and the Christian Democrats, who led the outgoing administration.

But analysts say this may be merely a tactical stance to avoid giving Mr Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party an opportunity to campaign on the basis that it was being shut out by the establishment parties.

“By ostracising them they may well turn against you,” said Ben Crum, an associate professor of political science at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Although Mr Wilders is unlikely to achieve the major breakthrough he hoped for, polls suggest his party is still likely to take more than 10 per cent of the seats in the lower house.

This will be enough to play a pivotal role in the post-poll debate, analysts say.

Best known for his virulent anti-Islam rhetoric and facing trial in a Dutch court next October for incitement to hatred, Mr Wilders had claimed, after a strong showing in local elections earlier this year, that he was poised to take on “the whole of the Netherlands”. His campaign has been marred by public insubordination within his party, with one MP calling for more democracy in the ranks and for the establishment of a youth wing.

A new poll yesterday by Amsterdam-based research agency TNS-Nipo suggested the liberals are on course to win 37 of 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, with the social democrats winning 31, the Christian Democrats taking 21 seats and the Freedom Party 17 seats.

Smaller left-leaning, Green and liberal parties would take up the remainder, the poll suggests.

This fragmented dispersal of support raises difficult questions for the country’s political leaders.

One possible coalition alignment, for example, is a difficult deal between Mr Rutte and social democrat leader Job Cohen, who opposes the radical budget cuts that are core to the liberal campaign.

Although Mr Rutte’s VVD party still trailed the social democrats early in April, they have been advancing ever since.

Party officials are buoyant. Werner Toonk, a city councillor for the VVD, said Mr Rutte is advancing in Mr Cohen’s Amsterdam stronghold. “He was a very popular mayor of the city but the programme is not what they want at the moment,” Mr Toonk claimed.

The election comes one year early after divisions over the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan led former Labour leader Wouter Bos to walk away from a pact with Christian Democrat leader Jan Peter Balkenende.

As prime minister, Mr Balkenende has led three coalitions in the last eight years but none of them reached full term. Two days ago, he suggested a four-way alliance with Mr Rutte, the smaller D66 liberal party and Green Left party.

Dr Crum said the Christian Democrats’ appeal to the Dutch middle classes cannot be overlooked as voters turn their focus to the election in the coming days.

On the streets of Amsterdam, however, prospective voters said Mr Rutte’s ascent was rooted in a desire for new political leaders.

“People want change, that’s the major thing. People want other faces,” said Lester Harmsan (28), an account manager with a tax-refund company.

Of Mr Balkenende, he said that “a lot of people are complaining about his leadership”. The prime minister suffered acute embarrassment last weekend, apologising after trying to avoid a television presenter’s question by saying she looked at him in “such a sweet way”.

Last month he lost a key ally when junior defence minister Jack de Vries, architect of the party’s moral values campaign, resigned after admitting an adulterous affair with a female aide.

Mr Bos’ successor, Mr Cohen, formerly the mayor of Amsterdam, made the early running with his integrationist immigration policies. But as the Greek debt crisis helped push economic issues to the fore, Mr Cohen’s halting television performances saw him lose ground to Mr Rutte.

“Mr Cohen was not the campaigner that the party expected him to be ... He’s not a smooth talker,” said Peter Kanne, lead pollster for TNS-Nipo.

“At this moment they are losing the struggle with the liberals and that might mean that it’s going to be worse for the social democrats.”

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