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Geert Wilders Freedom Party predicted win of 6 seats in Dutch election - Politician targetted by Islamists set to gain beyond expectations

November 22, 2006


Fortuyn's party failed to win any seats this time round, the exit polls indicated, though a new anti-immigrant grouping, Geert Wilders's Freedom Party, took six seats, according to NOS.

"I am very proud so many people put their trust in my team," Wilders told NOS. "We will make sure we deserved that trust in the coming years."

Polling booths opened early Wednesday in Dutch parliamentary elections after a deadlocked campaign between the governing Christian Democrats and the rival Labor Party, in a contest that will determine whether one of Europe's tightest immigration regimes gets even tougher or takes a softer approach.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, hoping to cash in on an economic turnaround despite his reputation for blandness and weak leadership, has consistently dominated the polls, and his Christian Democrats appear on track to become the largest party again.

In four years in office, Balkenende has ushered his country, renowned for its hashish-selling coffee shops and legalized prostitution and euthanasia, through a tumultuous debate over immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism following two political murders.

Led by hard-line Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, the government ended the Netherlands' traditional openness to foreigners and legislated more powers to the police and intelligence agencies. If Balkenende is returned to power, he likely will try to push through a new law banning head-to-toe Islamic robes such as the burqa.

About 6 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim.

With opinion polls swerving wildly in the final weeks, however, Balkenende is facing a strong challenge from Wouter Bos, leader of the opposition Labor Party, who hammered the conservatives for what he calls a heartless social policy but kept his criticism on immigration policy muted.

With as many as 40 percent of 12 million eligible voters still undecided in the final surveys, it was impossible to forecast winners and losers. The only safe prediction appeared to be that many weeks of coalition-building will be needed after the vote is in, most likely between Balkenende and Bos.

Balkenende also is credited with keeping an explosive situation under control after the murder two years ago by an Islamic extremist of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and avoiding widespread riots by disaffected immigrant youths such as those in France last year.

Balkenende Wins Dutch Election, Exit Polls Indicate (Update3)

By Evalinde Eelens and Celeste Perri

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats won the most seats in today's elections as voters endorsed policies that have brought the fastest economic growth in six years, exit polls indicated.

The Christian Democratic Alliance took 43 of the 150 seats in parliament, ahead of the main opposition Labor Party, led by Wouter Bos, which took 35 seats, according to a poll for NOS television. A second poll for RTL television showed the CDA ahead by 38 seats to 34.

"In the first years of his cabinet, Balkenende made all the painful reforms," said Charles Kalshoven, a senior economist at ABN Amro Holding NV in Amsterdam. "The economy is doing a lot better this year. Consumer confidence is really very strong and if consumer confidence is up, so are the ruling parties in the polls."

Balkenende, 50, who's been in power for four years, and his party had led in the opinion polls since September, when his government forecast the first budget surplus since 2000. The government has pledged to cut taxes, while the jobless rate is dropping and consumer confidence is hovering at a five-year high.

"We have strengthened the economy," Balkenende said yesterday during a televised debate with the leaders of the biggest parties. "It has been a really hard fight for us, but we've come out better."

More Jobs

The Dutch economy will grow more than 3 percent this year, Dutch Central Bank President Nout Wellink said in an interview Nov. 14. The government estimates the number of unemployed will drop by about 14 percent next year from August's level.

"The economy has clearly been the ruling coalition's focus," said Joop van Holsteyn, a professor of political science at Leiden University. "Balkenende's campaign was all about continuing on this path."

Balkenende's party will now have to find coalition partners to give it a majority of seats in parliament. A coalition between the CDA and Labor is the only possible two-party combination that would produce a majority, according to the NOS exit poll.

Political analysts, though, are skeptical about whether the two parties will be able to cooperate.

`Bitter Until The End'

"It'll be hard for Bos and Balkenende to work together as campaigning remained bitter until the end," said Carla van Baalen, the head of research at the Center for Parliamentary History in Nijmegen.

Balkenende avoided forming a coalition with Labor after the previous elections in 2003 by teaming up with the free-market VVD party and the D66 Democrats. He's said a cabinet including Labor and the Socialists could hurt the economy.

The Socialists, who called for greater investment in health care and an increase in the minimum wage for young people, made the biggest gains, according to NOS, rising to 24 seats from parliament from nine.

VVD, the prime minister's sole current coalition partner, took 21 seats, according to NOS, seven fewer than it currently has.

`Very Disappointing'

"These are very disappointing results," Defense Minister Henk Kamp, a member of the VVD, told NOS. He declined to comment on whether his party would be able to continue in government. "We'll see who the CDA chooses. The initiative lies with others."

According to the NOS exit poll, a CDA-VVD coalition would have 64 seats, while a coalition between Labor and its most likely partners, the Socialists and Green-Left, would have 67 seats. Neither would be enough for a majority.

"We haven't excluded any party, but you have to make sure that you can also offer stability," the CDA's leader in parliament, Maxime Verhagen, told NOS. "The last thing you want is instability."

In their campaign, the Christian Democrats highlighted a planned increase in child-care benefits for working parents with the aim of boosting the number of hours Dutch people work. The VVD advocated lowering income taxes across the board by 3 percent. Labor wants to offer a tax discount of 500 euros a year to all workers.

Today's election was called after Balkenende's coalition collapsed in June, the second of his governments to fall. D66 withdrew its support after its partners rejected its calls for Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk to step down over her handling of a probe into Somali-born former lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali's nationality.

Economy Trumps Immigration

Immigration, the issue that has dominated Dutch politics in recent years, played a less important role in the campaign than the economy, even though the government last week backed a proposal by Verdonk to ban face-covering clothing, such as the burqa worn by some Muslim women, in public places.

Pim Fortuyn, who campaigned to limit immigration on claims the Netherlands was "full," was shot nine days before the 2002 elections. The issue has become less pressing to voters, though, as emigration outpaces immigration and unemployment drops.

Fortuyn's party failed to win any seats this time round, the exit polls indicated, though a new anti-immigrant grouping, Geert Wilders's Freedom Party, took six seats, according to NOS.

"I am very proud so many people put their trust in my team," Wilders told NOS. "We will make sure we deserved that trust in the coming years."

Talks on forming a cabinet have taken more than two months on average in the Netherlands since World War II. The longest was in 1977, when the country had to wait 208 days for a new government.

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