Dutch vote amid economic worries
Dutch voters cast ballots Wednesday for a new parliament with a centre-right party vowing to slash public spending ahead in the polls and an outspoken anti-immigrant party heading for a breakthrough.
The first national election in a eurozone country since the Greek debt crisis has been dominated by economic concerns and is expected to yield a shift to the right of the Dutch political spectrum.
The leader of the centre-right Liberal Party (VVD), Mark Rutte voted in The Hague as polls predicted he was set to become the first Dutch prime minister from his political camp since World War I.
"I hope that today my party will become the biggest," Rutte said.
Dutch voters stood before a stark choice, he added: "Do we postpone the difficult measures and pay the price later, or are we prepared to bite the bullet now and come through the crisis stronger?"
Pollsters predict 34 of 150 lower house seats for the VVD, up from 21.
The Liberals promise to cut public spending by about 45 billion euros (54 billion dollars) over the next four years and by 20 billion euros a year as from 2015 -- the highest proposed by any party.
They want to eradicate the public deficit (5.3 percent of GDP last year), shrink the government and parliament, lower income taxes and cap civil servants' pay rises, while raising the retirement age by two years to 67.
The party also wants to limit immigration of "underprivileged" foreigners.
Led by anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV) is expected to emerge as another winner in the vote, with polls suggesting it could double its seats to 18.
It campaigned to halt immigration from Muslim countries and ban new mosques and the Koran in a bid to "stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands".
Flanked by half a dozen bodyguards, the 46-year-old Wilders cast his vote at a primary school in a middle-class suburb of The Hague, saying he believed his party had "popular support".
"We will have to wait and see, but I am very positive. I hope that we can be a part of the next government."
Several children and their parents, mostly of immigrant origin, booed the PVV leader as he arrived in a car with blackened windows.
"My blood is boiling. I know a lot of people in the neighborhood are going to vote for him," Linda Mahamdi, 40, a Dutch national who converted to Islam 12 years ago, told AFP, describing Wilders as "dangerous".
None of the 18 parties contesting the poll expect to receive an outright majority.
"We do not exclude any party," Rutte said in a televised debate Tuesday when asked about a possible coalition with the PVV.
Rutte's party lost some ground in polls at the last minute, after rivals in Tuesday's debate accused him of promoting "draconian" savings and bulldozing social gains.
"You talk of giving the economy a kickstart, but what you mean is giving it an electric shock. Electric shocks come with a high risk of paralysis," PvdA labour party leader Job Cohen said.
The PvdA is tipped to be the second largest party with 30 seats, down from its current 33 MPs.
Third in the polls is the Christian Democratic CDA of outgoing premier Jan Peter Balkenende, 54, predicted to take 24 seats -- down from 41.
Some 12 million Dutch are eligible to vote in polls brought forward after the government collapsed in February in a spat over military aid to Afghanistan.
The first exit polls are expected 30 minutes after the 10,000 voting stations close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT).
© 2010 AFP