Dutch polls open with centre-right Liberals in the lead

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Polling stations opened across the Netherlands Wednesday for elections dominated by Europe's economic woes and led by the centre-right liberal party with its plans to slash public spending.

"The polling stations are open. So far, there have been no reports of problems," Mat Meijs, spokesman for the electoral council told AFP shortly after some 10,000 ballot stations opened at 7:30 am (0530 GMT).

Close to 12 million Dutch are eligible to vote until 1900 GMT for 150 seats in the lower house of parliament in polls brought forward after the collapse of the government in February in a spat over military aid to Afghanistan.

Voting cubicles have been installed in public buildings, schools and sports centres, churches, restaurants, hospitals and 44 of the country's biggest train stations.

"In this way, people can vote on their way to work or to school," said Miranda Mens, a spokeswoman for the railway company.

Votes could also be cast at a special polling station erected at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, the only one to open at 0300 GMT.

The first exit polls are expected about 30 minutes after voting closes.

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

Pollsters on Tuesday night predicted the VVD centre-right liberal party to get about 34 seats, up from 21 currently -- putting leader Mark Rutte, 43, in line to become the first prime minister from a Dutch liberal party since World War I.

The PvdA Labour party led by Amsterdam's ex-mayor, 62-year-old Job Cohen, was put second with 30 seats, down from 33.

Third placed 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 polled fourth with 18 seats, double its current nine.

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.

The VVD promises 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 (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.

© 2010 AFP

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