Liberal Party favourite to win Dutch parliamentary poll

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As Europe's economic downturn starts hitting Dutch pockets, thrift has eclipsed immigration as the main voting issue and put the liberal VVD party in the lead ahead of parliamentary elections Wednesday.

Opinion polls expect almost 40 seats out of 150 in the Dutch lower house of parliament to go to the Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which proposes severe public spending cuts in the first elections in a eurozone country since the Greek crisis struck.

"For ten years, we have been talking about immigration and integration. But suddenly with the economic crisis what counts is the economy, budget cuts, unemployment: the liberals are looking good," political analyst Andre Krouwel of the Free University Amsterdam told AFP.

Put in first or second place by many polls just a few months ago, the Party for Freedom (PVV) of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders has now dropped to fourth spot.

It is still expected to double its number of MPs from the current nine -- enough to make it a possible candidate for a coalition government.

"If it weren't for the economic crisis, Wilders would have done a lot better," says University of Amsterdam political scientist Philip van Praag.

Wilders is widely seen as a one-dimensional politician who propagates a stop to Islamic immigration as the solution to everything from social spending to crime and the public deficit.

The VVD led by 43-year-old Mark Rutte, on the other hand, plans to cut government spending by 20 billion euros by 2015 -- the highest of all parties, to eradicate the public deficit and raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.

The Netherlands has seen its deficit and unemployment mount in recent months.

The VVD wants to reduce the size of the government and parliament, lower income taxes and cap civil servants' pay rises.

It has overtaken the current largest party, the Christian Democratic Action of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, in the polls.

The CDA is placed third with about 25 seats compared to its current 41.

Balkenende is leading an interim cabinet since his fourth coalition government in a row collapsed in February -- this time as the PvdA labour party withdrew in a spat over Dutch military assistance to Afghanistan.

The VVD was part of Balkenende's first three governments, between 2002 and 2006.

"I am used to pedalling against the wind. Adversity only makes me stronger," 54-year-old Balkenende said in a recent newspaper interview.

But Krouwel said: "When one drives four cars off the road, nobody is going to entrust them with a fifth."

"There is a demand for something different, something new," added University of Twente political analyst Martin Rosema.

A partner in Dutch coalition governments since the end of World War II, the CDA has also lost ground to the labour party (PvdA) led by Amsterdam ex-mayor Job Cohen, 62.

Pollsters put the PvdA second at 29 seats, down from 33 currently.

Cohen, a champion of integration, is seen as an antithesis to Wilders who has called him a "multi-cultural cuddler".

Wilders, who quit the VVD in 2004 to create his own party, wants to stop immigration from Muslim countries and the erection of new mosques, and campaigns for a ban of the burqa and the Koran -- which he has likened to Hitler's Mein Kampf.

His PVV came first in local elections in Almere in March and second in The Hague -- the only two cities it contested in its first-ever municipal campaign.

While immigration still tops the list of concerns for about 15 percent of voters, who cite criminality and rising social spending, "savings are definitely going to be the big issue of this campaign," Van Praag said.

© 2010 AFP

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