Voting over in Dutch election

Anti-immigration party projected to make gains, though economy emerges as key issue.

    Rutte, from left, Wilders and Cohen are all vying for the PM position held by Balkenende, far right [AFP]

    But the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, 46, also looks set to make big gains.

    'Too extreme'

    As with all post-war Dutch governments, the winners will have to form a coalition to ensure a parliamentary majority of at least 76 seats.

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    The most commonly expected scenario would put the VVD together with the Christian Democrats and the PVV.

    However, speaking to Al Jazeera from Amsterdan, Frits Wester, a political journalist, said that he thought such a scenario was unlikely.

    Wester said: "There's no party who really wants to form a coalition with the party of Geert Wilders.

    "His expressions about the Islam, his criticism of the Islam, is too extreme for the Netherlands, so no party is really willing to form a coalition with him.

    "And also his solutions for the financial crisis are a little bit old fashioned, so I don't think he will be part of the next coalition."

    Immigration concerns

    The country's fourth election since 2002 comes after the Labour party (PvdA) brought down the centrist government of Jan Peter Balkenende, the prime minister, in March over its refusal to extend the Dutch military contribution to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    But Afghanistan was barely mentioned in the three-month campaign, as budget cuts rose swiftly up the agenda and immigration remained a key issue.

    Wilders, a politician who has denounced Islam as a fascist religion, seized the spotlight early on in the election with a platform that included a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women.

    However, Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Amsterdam, said the campaign success of the VVD party has taken the spotlight off of Wilders' campaign.

    "Wilders does have a strong support base," she said.

    "He is expected to double the amount of seats he has across the country, but not as much as you would have expected earlier in the campaign because the focus has changed from immigration to the economy, which is really dominating things here.

    "And the man who has stood out on his economic policies is ... Rutte. He has more moderate views on immigration, but crucially for the Dutch he has very strict views on how to deal with the Netherlands' bulging budget deficit."

    At one time, Wilders' four-year-old party led opinion polls, but fell back dramatically to fourth place after attention shifted to the European financial crisis and demands to cut the country's deficit, now predicted to run at 6.3 per cent of GDP this year.

    The focus on economic issues has helped Rutte's party gain prominence, but while it has previously joined several centre-right and centre-left coalitions, it has not led a government since before World War I.

    Although less outspoken than Wilders, Rutte has warned that "welfare tourism" with open doors to migrants from Muslim countries and Eastern Europe would be a drain on the economy.

    Budget cuts

    Opinion polls suggest that Job Cohen, 62, the former mayor of Amsterdam who took over the Labour party leadership after the collapse of the government, is the most popular single candidate.

    But his party lags in second place, well behind the VVD.

    Cohen has warned Rutte that his plan to cut $24bn in government spending over five years will hurt the poor.

    "We're not going to budget-cut the economy to death," Cohen said.

    "We will make sure people keep their jobs. For that you need politicians that work together on solutions, a Netherlands where everybody counts."

    The polls predict Wilders may win at least twice the nine seats he currently holds in parliament.

    But it was unclear whether Wilders, whose unfettered rhetoric has made him the target of death threats, would be an acceptable partner in a coalition.

    He faces a criminal trial later this year on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination with his 17-minute film Fitna, which portrayed Islam as encouraging terrorism and rejecting Western values.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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