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Dutch poll seeks to fill vacuum left by Lubbers: Immigration and the welfare state loom large in Tuesday's elections, writes Sarah Lambert in The Hague

THE NETHERLANDS is preparing to end an era. The Prime Minister of 12 years, Ruud Lubbers, is stepping down, leaving a political vacuum that the contenders for power in Tuesday's national elections are struggling to fill.

Polls suggest that, for the first time since 1945, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDA) may not muster enough votes to form part of the ruling coalition. For the Dutch this possibility opens up a range of uncertainties. The voters are depressed by the politicians' message that the cradle-to-grave welfare state has to be dismantled, and are beginning to blame their problems on immigration. The tolerant liberalism on which the post-war political consensus was founded faces a dangerous threat from the extreme right.

In Rotterdam, the extreme-right Central Democrats (CD) doubled their electoral score in the March municipal elections and took 14 per cent of the vote - a phenomenon reproduced in The Hague (12 per cent), Amsterdam (10 per cent) and Utrecht (10.2 per cent).

When politicians from the ruling coalition took to the stump in Rotterdam they were barracked. 'They were badly shaken by the experience and that they should have had that reaction demonstrates how far removed from the electorate they have become,' one voter said.

The CD's leader, Hans Janmaat, is notoriously uncharismatic, which many believe has limited his support. It is hoped the protest vote registered at local level will not be mirrored in national elections. In the far north, where there are few immigrants, one local municipality returned Communists to the local council.

Yet immigration is now the election issue. Even Mr Lubbers has declared that 'immigrants cannot merely expect to be looked after, they are going to have to go out and look for work'. His chosen successor, Elco Brinkman, has courted criticism with the suggestion that social integration would be helped by 'bussing' immigrant children into schools.

Mr Brinkman, 46, will have to fight hard to inherit Mr Lubbers's mantle. Once welfare, culture and health minister, he is now party manager - a low -profile job. He has been waiting in the wings so long that the novelty of his nomination has worn off. He is tough on the need to maintain economic austerity. This has dictated the unpopular freeze on social security and pension payments.

The electorate is wary. The party's Catholic grandees mistrust his Protestantism and fear he may prove too liberal. In the Netherlands, where the art of political consensus and compromise is so refined that personality counts for much, Mr Brinkman's greatest handicap is that he is not Mr Lubbers, still the man most people would like to see prime minister. The Lubbers factor is worth an estimated 10 parliamentary seats and Mr Brinkman will have trouble holding on to them.

Suggestions that the country faces an identity crisis as it deals with the recession and the changing role of Germany, its closest neighbour and main trading partner, provoke scorn. But the huge fall-off in support for traditional parties reflects a profound sense of national insecurity.

(Graphic omitted)