DUTCH VOTERS HEAD TO POLLS AMID AUSTERITY CONCERNS

By NBF News
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The economy has become the dominant election issue

Dutch voters are heading to the polls in an election that has been dominated by the economy and budget cuts.

The free-market People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which has promised deep cuts in public spending, has been leading opinion polls.

Polls also suggest growing support for the anti-immigration far-right Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders.

The election – the fourth since 2002 – was called after the government fell over the Dutch mission in Afghanistan.

The junior coalition partner, the Labour Party, withdrew from the government after refusing to extend the Dutch contribution to the Nato force, as Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende wanted.

Dutch troops are therefore expected to leave Afghanistan by August.

Coalition likely
Political analysts say voters appear tired of Mr Balkenende's centre-right Christian Democrats, and the VVD is the favourite to become the largest single party in Wednesday's vote.

Geert Wilders' party is expected to increase its share of the vote

The VVD, run by Mark Rutte, has advocated steep budget cuts, a pared-down government and a reduction in benefits for immigrants.

Polls suggest it will win 36 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, but will have to forge a coalition with at least two other parties in order to attain a governing majority of 76.

If the VVD gains the largest share of the votes, Mr Rutte has said he wants to have a coalition in place by 1 July.

The Freedom Party led by Mr Wilders is expected to increase its parliamentary representation, which could allow him to make or break a new right-wing coalition government.

But Mr Wilders – whose hallmark is his strident attacks on Islam and the perceived failure of immigration policy – has struggled to make a big impression against the grim economic outlook, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports from Amsterdam.

Polling stations close at 2100 local time (1900 GMT), with results due a few hours later.