Dutch elect parliament amid economic worries

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Dutch voters elected a new parliament Wednesday 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 financial crash has been dominated by economic concerns.

Liberal party (VVD) leader Mark Rutte voted in The Hague at the centre of huge media interest as polls predict he will become the Netherlands' first prime minister from a liberal party since World War I.

"I hope that today my party will become the biggest," he told journalists shortly before casting his vote.

Dutch voters stood before a difficult choice, he said: "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 the VVD will get about 34 seats in Wednesday's election, up from 21 currently.

The Liberals have promised to cut government 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), reduce the size of the government and parliament, lower income taxes and cap civil servants' pay rises, while raising the retirement age by two years to 67.

Rutte's VVD lost some ground overnight, about two seats in the polls, following a televised premier's debate in which he was accused by rivals of promoting "draconian" savings to the detriment of the weakest of society.

"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, with 24 seats -- down from 41.

The Party for Freedom (PVV) of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, 46, is expected to double its number of seats to 18, however.

Wilders arrived with half-a-dozen bodyguards at a primary school polling station in a middle-class suburb of The Hague Wednesday morning and said it was "an exciting day."

"I hope for the best outcome for my party," he told journalists.

"I think we have 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 from immigrant origin, booed the PVV leader as he arrived at the school in a car with blackened windows.

The PVV led in opinion polls just a few months ago, but its main campaign issue, to stop the "Islamisation of the Netherlands", has been eclipsed by budget concerns amid Europe's economic downturn.

Close to 12 million Dutch are eligible to vote for 150 seats in the lower house in polls brought forward after the government collapsed in February in a spat over military aid to Afghanistan.

None of the 18 parties contesting the poll expect to receive an outright majority.

The first exit polls are expected about 30 minutes after the 10,000 voting stations close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT).

Some 10 percent of voters had cast their ballot by 0830 GMT, officials said.

© 2010 AFP

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