Netherlands holds general election
Mainstream pro-European parties looked set to dominate the parliamentary election under way in the Netherlands today, dispelling concerns that radical eurosceptics might gain sway in a core euro zone country and push to quit the European Union or flout its budget rules.
But the Netherlands is likely to remain an awkward, tough-talking member of the single currency area, strongly resisting transfers to euro zone debtors, regardless of whether caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberals or the centre-left Labour Party of Diederik Samsom win the most seats.
Opinion polls yesterday showed the Liberals and Labour on 36 seats each or the Liberals fractionally in front, with the hard-left Socialists and the far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party fading in third and fourth place respectively.
That makes it more likely, though not certain, that Mr Rutte, with the strongest international profile, will stay as premier.
Turnout stood at 13 per cent of eligible voters at 0900 GMT, around the same level as two years ago, broadcasters reported, citing a poll by Ipsos Synovate.
Early morning commuters at Amsterdam's central station were among the first to vote, popping into a still-closed art deco cafe by the railway platform before catching trains to work.
Nienke van Zaambeek, a psychologist, had voted for GreenLeft, saying she was worried about the impact of liberalisation in the health care sector. "The influence of private companies is getting ever bigger, and the right-wing government has been in favour of more privatisation."
The final days of campaigning became a two-horse race between Rutte, 45, a former Unilever human resources manager dubbed the "Teflon" prime minister because of his ability to brush off disasters, and the energetic Mr Samsom (41), a former Greenpeace activist whose debating flair wowed voters.
Both leaders voted early, Samsom with his wife and children in the university town of Leiden, and Mr Rutte alone in a polling station inside his old primary school in The Hague.
Mr Rutte repeated his party's commitment to fiscal discipline. "We have asked Brussels (for deficit limits), and we are doing it...not because of Brussels, but because we believe it is crucial for economic growth," he said.
The far-right populist Geert Wilders, who criticises Europe and Muslim immigration, also voted in The Hague, accompanied by his state-provided protection officers.
Both Liberals and Labour have played down talk that they will end up in coalition, together with one or two smaller parties. But parliamentary arithmetic suggests this is the most probable outcome given a highly fragmented political landscape.
Still, about a fifth of the 12.5 million voters said they were undecided, leaving room for surprises.
The Netherlands is one of the few triple-A rated countries left in Europe and a long-standing ally of Germany in demanding strict adherence to fiscal discipline. The election was seen as a barometer of northern European stamina - both for austerity and for bailouts to keep the single currency bloc intact.
Thrifty Dutch taxpayers are frustrated at demands for belt-tightening, especially the steady erosion of their cherished welfare state and pensions, while having to stump up billions of euros to rescue what they see as profligate budget sinners.
"People have become negative about Europe because we give so much money to Greece and other countries and at the same time we are aware of the fact that we badly need money here to pay for schools, for the army and everything," Jaap Paauwe, a professor of management at Tilburg University, told Reuters.
As the Dutch voted, Germany's Constitutional Court gave a green light for the country to ratify the euro zone's new rescue fund and budget pact but also veto powers to parliament over any future increases in the size of the fund. The court rejected requests from eurosceptics and leftists who argued Germany was too exposed to unlimited financial liability.
With the focus on the euro zone crisis and its impact on the domestic economy, Europe took centre stage during the campaign.
Employers' groups representing big businesses such as consumer electronics giant Philips as well as small and medium-sized firms that form the backbone of the Dutch economy ran a campaign highlighting the benefits of EU membership.
The main employers' group hung a banner outside its head office in The Hague proclaiming: "Vote for Europe and your job."
In a pamphlet distributed to voters entitled The Netherlands earns its living from Europe, business groups said theexport-dependent economy would lose 90 billion euros a year in sales without the euro and the EU's internal market.
In contrast, one of the biggest unions posted a cartoon on its website showing the electoral battleground as the Last Chance Saloon with caricatures of Mr Rutte and his allies stalking the saloon bars in the Wild West.
Fears over Europe initially played in favour of the two main populist parties, particularly the Socialist Party which a month ago was either leading or a close second in opinion polls.
The Socialists have waned largely because of the dismal showing of their leader Emile Roemer, a former teacher, in an almost nightly marathon of television debates.
Mr Wilders's anti-Islam Freedom Party, which is calling for the Netherlands to quit the euro and the EU, has also lost support.
Some of his followers are disappointed that he squandered his real power as Mr Rutte's chief ally in parliament when he brought down the government in April by refusing to support another package of budget cuts.
Mr Wilders wanted to turn the election into a referendum on Dutch membership of the euro and EU, denouncing the heavy burden carried by Henk and Ingrid, his Dutch stereotypes of Mr and Mrs Average. His campaign was damaged when a real-life Henk with a wife called Ingrid attacked and killed an immigrant.
The latest polls suggested voters had been coaxed back into the centre. Marijke Jongbloed, a documentary maker, told Reuters she normally voted for the Socialist Party (SP), but would probably vote Labour this time.
"I do support the SP but for premier I would vote for Diederik Samsom, he's more cosmopolitan and more on the ball, and these days you have to mix and mingle with European leaders, schmoozing them, and I think Samsom is a little bit more savvy in this respect," she said.