Dutch voters go centrist, shun euroskepticism

The center-right Liberals and the center-left Social Democrats won the most seats in yesterday's parliamentary election, setting the two parties as likely coalition partners.

Ermindo Armino/AP
Dutch prime minister and Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte talks to supporters after exit poll results for the parliamentary elections were announced in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday Sept. 12, 2012.

The euroskeptical movement in The Netherlands was given a sharp blow yesterday in parliamentary elections that ended up with the two rival frontrunners gaining so much support, that they are now likely to be forced to work together.

The center-right Liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte came out of the elections as the largest party, with 41 out of 150 seats, up from 31. The center-left Social Democrats won 38 seats, a spectacular comeback for leader Diederik Samsom, whose party had 30 seats in parliament but had been polling around 15 seats only one month ago. The race between the two parties was too close to call until several hours after midnight.  [Editor's note: The number of seats won by the Social Democrats has been updated to reflect revised totals.]

The populist far-right party of Geert Wilders seems to have paid the price for internal struggles and walking away from the budget talks which led to the collapse of Rutte's government in April. His party, which wants The Netherlands to leave the European Union, shrunk from 24 to 15 seats. The other euroskeptic party, the Socialists, didn't gain any seats and remained at 15, despite a good showing in the polls until three weeks ago.

The largest party in parliament has the right to start coalition talks and is usually the one to put forth the prime minister, so Mr. Rutte will most likely have a second term as prime minister.  Tinke de Ree, a voter from Utrecht, praised his “positive image,” while Anne Raden Karmo said in Amsterdam she feels that Rutte is the best politician to serve her interests as an entrepreneur.

According to a survey, one in four voters cast a strategic vote yesterday instead of a vote on the party they think is closest to their ideals. Rene Verburg is one of those strategic voters. “The previous time I voted for GreenLeft, but this time I voted for the Social Democrats”, Mr. Verburg said in Utrecht, the fourth largest city here. “The last time the Liberals gained just one seat more than the Social Democrats and I want to prevent that this time.”

In an interview with the state broadcaster NOS, Mr. Wilders partially blamed his “defeat” on the horse race between Rutte and Mr. Samsom and said that “many people have voted strategically.”

Ironically, the number of seats held by Social Democrats and the Liberals are now so large that any coalition that doesn't include both is unlikely: A phenomenon that Rutte himself has complained about in the past. The 2006 elections were also portrayed as a horse race between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. In an interview with this reporter in 2006, Rutte called strategic voting “annoying,” because it leads to two parties being condemned to each other. This time however, the phenomenon turned to Rutte's advantage.

Liberal politician Henk Kamp will begin exploratory coalition talks with party leaders tomorrow. He is scheduled to report on his findings next week, when the newly elected parliament convenes for the first time on September 20.

The Social Democrats and the Liberals have worked together in a coalition before, from 1994 to 2002. However, since then both parties have ideologically moved somewhat to the left and the right, respectively. And since the two do not have a majority in the Senate, which has the power to turn down legislation, they may want to add another party to their coalition.

Verburg is not confident the formation process will move quickly. “During the campaign, the parties have dug their heels in the sand on issues, and did a lot of mudslinging. I don't think we'll have a government before Christmas,” he said.

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