| AMSTERDAM, Sept 13
AMSTERDAM, Sept 13 Two radical groups from the
political extremes suffered stinging defeats as the Dutch voted
tactically for pro-European mainstream parties and political
leaders seen as the best able to handle the euro zone crisis.
The hard-left Socialist Party and Geert Wilders'
anti-immigration, anti-euro Freedom Party both fared far worse
than expected in Wednesday's general election, a sign that the
influence of some of Europe's populist parties, fuelled by the
crisis and rising unemployment, may have peaked.
"This really shows voters were voting strategically. They
realised the extremes are not the solution at the moment. The
Dutch are not anti-European. They are pro-European," said Famke
Krumbmueller of the Eurasia political risk consultancy.
Just a month ago, the former Maoist Socialists of Emile
Roemer, who oppose austerity and bailouts for weaker euro zone
countries, were either leading in opinion polls or neck and neck
with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals.
Wilders' Freedom Party was snapping at their heels, having
switched themes from his signature anti-Islamic immigration
bashing to calling for the Netherlands to scrap the euro, bring
back the guilder and leave the European Union.
The bleached-blonde Wilders suffered the biggest debacle,
losing more than a third of his seats to tie for a distant third
place with the Socialists, who held on to their 15 lawmakers.
Wilders' supporters either voted tactically, mostly for
Rutte's Liberals, or deserted him in dismay at his ill-conceived
strategy of bringing down a centre-right government and fighting
the election on economics rather than immigration.
As the third-largest party in parliament since 2010, the
Freedom Party had real influence on policy by keeping a minority
Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition in office. Many supporters
were upset when Wilders toppled the government in April by
refusing to back budget cuts.
DICTATORIAL SOUND-BITE KING
Several Freedom Party lawmakers quit in the run-up to the
election, bringing internal conflicts and complaints about
Wilders' alleged dictatorial style into the open.
Results from strongholds such as Wilders' home town of Venlo
showed that voters had switched to Rutte's Liberals.
A survey by polling agency Ipsos Synovate found that 43
percent of former Freedom Party voters chose a different party
because they felt it made no sense to vote for a group which
others had ruled out as a coalition partner.
More than a quarter of voters said they voted tactically and
12 percent only made up their minds on election day.
"I voted for (Wilders) last time because of his social
policy," said Benjamin, 24, an shoe shop assistant, who said he
had switched to the Liberals.
"I expected him to do more for poor people. Ahead of this
election, Wilders was very anti-euro and anti-Islam and I didn't
Roos, an Amsterdam shop owner who like Benjamin declined to
give her surname, said she had voted for Wilders in 2010 as a
protest vote, but no longer supported him.
Ivo, a banker, said Wilders was "useful" in the political
debate because he said things other politicians dared not voice
about immigration and Islam.
Ever the master of the sound bite, Wilders conceded that his
party had done badly, but vowed to keep fighting.
"My aim is to protect the Netherlands from the euro,
immigration and the super-state," he told supporters on election
night. "I will not quit."
He delivered some of the most powerful one-liners in the
campaign, telling Rutte on television: "You talk about jobs,
jobs, jobs but all I see are Poles, Poles, Poles."
But Rutte shot back: "You left the Liberals, you left the
Catshuis (Prime Minister's office), and now you want to leave
the euro. I wonder if you'll make it to the end of this debate."
The prime minister has had the last laugh.
ROEMER FAILS ON TV
Support for the Socialists had more than doubled since the
2010 election on the back of widespread resentment over
austerity measures at home and the need to stump up billions of
euros to lend to Greece, Portugal and Ireland.
But those gains evaporated as election day neared, largely
because party leader Roemer, a former school teacher, performed
dismally in one televised election debate after another.
Labour leader Diederik "Samsom was much more convincing in
the election campaign than the SP leader," said Michael Riman, a
50-year-old conflict mediator who voted for the social-liberal
Marijke Jongbloed, a documentary maker, said she switched
allegiance from the Socialist Party to the pro-European Labour
Party after Samsom impressed viewers in the debates with his
authoritative style and knowledge of the issues.
"I do support SP (the Socialist Party) but for premier I
would vote for Diederik Samsom, he's more cosmopolitan and more
on the ball, and these days you have to mix and mingle with
European leaders, schmoozing them, and I think Samsom is a
little bit more savvy in this respect," Jongbloed said.
Roemer rattled investors by saying if he won the Netherlands
would refuse to pay a European Union fine if its budget deficit
exceeded 3 percent of GDP, breaking EU rules.
"Over my dead body," he told Het Financieele Dagblad.
Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager said investors had called
the ministry to seek clarity on Roemer's comments and he had to
reassure them that the Netherlands would meet its obligations.
Former Socialist leader Jan Marijnissen said at the time
Roemer's remark was a mistake but nothing to worry about. On
Thursday, Marijnissen said the party would evaluate the election
result "because something has clearly gone wrong".