Dutch go to the polls, centre-right liberals lead

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Close to 12 million Dutch are eligible to vote Wednesday in elections dominated by Europe's economic woes and led by the centre-right liberal party with its plans to slash public spending.

Some 10,000 polling stations were due to open at 7:30 am (0530 GMT) in the first elections in a eurozone country since the Greek financial crash.

Pollsters expect the VVD party to get 36 seats out of 150 in the Dutch lower house, up from 21 currently -- putting leader Mark Rutte in line to become the first prime minister from a Dutch liberal party since World War I.

Rutte, 43, is a sworn bachelor who worked for 10 years in the corporate world.

Latest polls put the PvdA Labour party led by Amsterdam's ex-mayor, 62-year-old Job Cohen, second in the race with 30 seats, down from 33.

Third placed is the Christian Democratic CDA of outgoing premier Jan Peter Balkenende, 54, with 25 seats -- down from 41.

The Party for Freedom (PVV) of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, 46, is polled fourth with 18 seats -- double its current nine.

The Dutch political system traditionally gives no party an outright majority as issue-driven voters easily shift allegiances.

The last centre-left coalition between the CDA, PvdA and the smaller Christian Union collapsed in February in a spat over military assistance to Afghanistan -- causing elections to be brought forward.

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.

It campaigned for a halt to Muslim integration, as well as the banning of the Koran and the erection of new mosques.

The VVD, on the other hand, 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.

It wants to eradicate the public deficit, 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.

If he wins, Rutte will immediately start putting together a coalition cabinet -- a task that normally takes weeks but which he wishes to complete by July 1.

Voters can mark their ballots with red pencil until polling stations close at 1900 GMT. The first exit polls are expected about 30 minutes later.

© 2010 AFP

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