A coalition by Christmas?; Dutch election: neither side wins

If the Sept. 8 Dutch election sets any trend at all for this fall's series of European elections, that trend is muddle. Neither right nor left has prevailed.

Paradoxically, however, more clear-cut conservative government decisions may now come out of this election than have been possible in the past several years of the omnibus left-right coalition.

Thus, the right (the Liberals, who despite their name are the furthest right of the four main parties) and the left (Labor) have both won at the expense of the center (the Christian Democrats of outgoing coalition Prime Minister Andreas van Agt).

Van Agt is still expected by Dutch political observers to form a clear center-right majority sooner or later - an elastic period of time that in the Netherlands usually means several months.

This time government formation might well take until Christmas, since Labor nosed ahead of the Christian Democrats to become the largest parliamentary party (47 seats, up three) and is therefore expected to be given the first chance to build a coalition.

Labor is further expected to fail in this attempt though, since the Christian Democrats (45 seats, down three) and the Liberals (36 seats, up 10, as the biggest single gainer in the election) are already informally allied and now have a majority between them of 81 seats out of 150 in parliament.

The fourth largest party, Democrats 1966 - which in recent years appealed to young intellectuals - lost half its voters back to Labor and is no longer a major political actor, with only six seats (down 11). Eight tiny parties split the remaining 16 seats.

The pre-election expectation was that a swing to the right and away from Labor would finally give Van Agt a clear majority both for retrenchment in social welfare and final approval of NATO plans to station new American missiles in Holland. But Van Agt will presumably still get his center-right majority and be able to slash his projected $1 billion out of social spending next year to reduce a deficit that is pushing 10 percent of GNP.

The NATO missile deployment - which public opinion polls show is opposed by a hefty majority of Dutch voters - is more problematical following Labor's last-minute surge. Dutch political observers still anticipate that van Agt will obtain Dutch acquiescence to the missiles next year. But it will be close.

Labor resolutely opposed the mid-'80s missile stationing agreed on by NATO governments in 1979 for West Germany, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Some Christian Democrat members of parliament also oppose the deployment, and Van Agt has indicated his intention to leave a parliamentary vote to individual conscience rather than make it a matter of party discipline.

West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt added his pressure on Holland to approve the NATO plans last month when he visited here with this request. It was the first visit by a West German chancellor to his western neighbor in 18 years.

For the 81 percent of Holland's 10 million voters who cast ballots (as against 87 percent in the 1981 general election), the main issue was not missiles, but the slumped economy. Bankruptcies are at record levels for this century, and unemployment is the worst since the 1930s. The latest figures of joblessness stand at 564,000, or more than 11 percent of the work force - and still rising.

It was over the issue of retrenchment in social welfare vs. job stimulation that Labor quit the grand coalition last spring, precipitating this fall's early election.

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