Dutch polls open in crucial provincial vote

Reuters , Wednesday 2 Mar 2011

The five-month-old Dutch minority government, a right-leaning coalition backed by anti-Islam party, could come under renewed pressure at national level if it does badly in regional elections

Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders on election night. (Photo: Reuters)

In the Netherlands, provincial elections determine the number of seats allocated to each party in the Senate, or upper house, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government has a minority.

The elections will also show whether Rutte's ally, the populist Geert Wilders of the anti-Islam Freedom Party, is gathering momentum as a force in Dutch politics.

A boost would give it more leverage to push its policies, which could affect Dutch support for European Union policies, potentially straining relations.

For example, Wilders opposes bailouts for the EU's heavily indebted peripheral members and is against extending financial aid to troubled nations in the Middle East or North Africa.

For Rutte, "when it comes to the micromanagement of the Netherlands, of budget cuts of a millimetre or so, he's fine, but he'll need all his resources if there's a crisis in Europe, or if serious things have to be done in Europe," said Andre Krouwel, political analyst at Amsterdam's Free University.

Polls open at 0630 GMT and the first exit polls are expected at about 2000 GMT.

The most recent opinion polls indicated the coalition partners, the Liberals and Christian Democrats, together with the Freedom Party (PVV) would probably fall just short of a majority in the Senate, with 37 out of 75 seats.

The Freedom Party, which currently has no seats in the upper house, could emerge as the second-largest party there, potentially giving it considerable clout with the coalition.

But even without an absolute majority in the upper house, the government may still be able to win support from one or two of the smaller parties including SGP, a conservative protestant party, and 50PLUS, representing the interests of the elderly.

Rutte has shown he can do deals with other parties in those cases where he cannot rely on Wilders -- for example, winning over the Green Party and a couple of other opposition parties to get a majority in support of sending a police training mission to Afghanistan.

The last government fell because it was split over whether to keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan. The issue of a mission in Afghanistan remains highly divisive in the Netherlands and has strained relations with the United States.

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