Centre-left collapses as Dutch go to polls

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The Independent Online
EARLY EXIT polls from the Dutch general election yesterday confirmed the collapse of the centre-left coalition that has dominated Dutch politics for nearly a decade.

The exit polls, on a surprising 80 per cent turn-out of the 11 million voters, suggested the dominant coalition party, the Christian Democrat (CDA), would lose 20 of their 54 seats in the 150-seat lower house, and their socialist partners (PvdA) 13 of their 49. The gains seem to be shared between the progressive D66 group, who looked set to double their 12 seats, and the conservative Liberals (VVD), who should move from 22 to 30.

With the formal resignation of the cabinet, the outgoing CDA prime minister, Ruud Lubbers, declared his candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission. The race to replace Jacques Delors is now officially on, and Mr Lubbers's declaration pits him against Sir Leon Brittan and the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, who has never denied rumours that he would like the job.

The Netherlands is feeling the strain of recession. With unemployment running at an unprecedented 8 per cent and growth stagnant, all parties have insisted that the country's generous welfare provisions have to be scaled down. The suggestion has prompted widespread uncertainty, exacerbated by Mr Lubbers's retirement after 12 years as prime minister and the shake-up of his centre-left political alliance.

A growing sense of insecurity has ensured that the issue of welfare was always at the heart of the election. One of the knock-on effects has been the creation of Europe's first pensioners' parties. Nearly half the electorate is aged over 50, 4 million people, representing about a quarter of the total population. According to opinion polls these two parties - Unie 55 and Algemeen Ouderen Verbond (AOV) - are likely to win between four and six seats in the new parliament.

In many minds welfare reform has become inextricably linked with immigration. More and more people resent the notion that they are paying taxes merely to support 'aliens'. Although the Dutch government's immigration policy has toughened considerably in recent years, the Netherlands is still seen as a softer option for would-be settlers than France or Germany. The extreme right, campaigning on a 'The Netherlands is full' platform, scored well in local elections in March and is set to build on those gains.

With the four main parties fairly equally balanced, finding a formula for power-sharing will be difficult. Most voters favour the so-called purple coalition, mixing PvdA, the liberals and D66. But the liberal view on social reform is too market- orientated for the PvdA to swallow. And the prospect of relegating the CDA - a vital ingredient in every post-war coalition - to the opposition benches seems unthinkable and a contradiction of Dutch consensus politics.

The PvdA and its leader, Wim Kok, the Finance Minister, are likely to emerge holding the balance of power. Mr Kok, fiscally prudent, is widely respected, and would be a popular choice for prime minister. His CDA challenger, and Ruud Lubbers' appointed successor, Elco Brinkman, is having trouble wooing electors for whom Mr Lubbers is the party.

Voting is the easy part, the subsequent power-sharing will be the real test of how the Netherlands intends to confront its future.

(Photograph omitted)