Key issue in Dutch election is future of welfare system

Imagine a country where social democracy is carried so far that the government buys paintings that artists cannot sell. That country exists: the Netherlands, where a historic national commitment to fairness and decency has been molded into the model welfare state.

Dutch voters go to the polls tomorrow in the country's first parliamentary election since 1982. At stake in the short term is the existence of the center-right coalition government of Christian Democrats and Liberals led by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. At issue in the long term is the future shape of the welfare system.

Other issues are certain to influence voter thinking. These include the use of nuclear energy following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl last month; the advisability of allowing deployment of new United States nuclear missiles on Dutch territory (due to take place in 1988); and the Netherlands' 13 percent unemployment rate, the third-highest in the 12-nation European Community.

But the central voter choice will be between the policies of the present coalition government and the opposition Labor Party -- the country's largest party with 47 seats in the 150-member Parliament. The coalition has moved quickly to cut back the welfare state and has promised to make more changes.

Political analysts here say the government's sweeping attack on social spending over the past four years has cost the coalition significant support, particularly among the lowest-income groups, whose purchasing power has been slashed by up to 10 percent.

``They feel they have borne the greatest burden of the government's spending cuts,'' says Maurice de Hond, a director of Inter-View, a leading market-research firm, ``and they'll be switching their vote to Labor.''

The results of the firm's latest opinion poll show Labor winning 54 seats (a gain of 7 over 1982), the Christian Democrats holding their own with 45, and the Liberal Party losing 8 seats to fall to 28. If these predictions are borne out, it will be the greatest shift in voter sentiment in Dutch history and will probably give the Labor Party the leverage it needs to take power.

In all, nearly 40 percent of total government spending goes to funding the welfare state. Except for Belgium, that is more than in any other industrialized country in the world, including Denmark and Sweden.

Now the economy is suffering from past excesses just as revenues from sales of Dutch natural gas are slumping at the fastest rate since World War II. Until this year, gas sales had accounted for roughly 6 percent of income. Next year, receipts are expected to fall by $4 billion to $4.4 billion, making further cuts in promised government spending on welfare that much more difficult.

But none of the major parties contesting the election have dared call for dismantling the welfare state as a means of resolving the budgetary crisis. Instead, there is persistent campaign talk of ``fine-tuning'' the welfare system. All parties at least recognize the need to keep social spending under control.

The Dutch wage-earner will simply not accept any further erosion of his buying power or welfare benefits, says John Becker of the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau, a leading governemnt-sponsored think tank.

``The economic outlook is better now than it has been for some time, and everyone wants to cash in on it,'' he says.

``People want more money again -- not just for themselves, but for all of society,'' he adds, reflecting Dutch tradition.

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