Dutch voters cast their ballots on Wednesday, with polls showing the liberal VVD party could get its first win at the national level. The vote could also spell the end of Jan Peter Balkenende's days as prime minister.
Voting has not been compuslory in the Netherlands since 1967
The latest opinion polls indicate that the pro-business, liberal VVD party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), led by Mark Rutte is the favorite to win this general election.
But it is expected to be an extremely close race, with the center-left PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid), hot on its heels. It has profited from the popularity of its new leader, Job Cohen, who impressed many voters with his work as mayor of Amsterdam.
According to opinion polls, the difference between the two could could come down to as little as five seats in the Dutch parliament's lower house, the Tweede Kamer. The VVD is expected to get around 35 of the 150 seats up for grabs in the parliament.
Leading Dutch pollster Maurice de Hond says this is a sign of tough times ahead for whoever forms the next government.
"First of all the majority is very small. Secondly [the coalition] will be a combination of at least one party from the left and one from the right," he said. "It will be hard work and even after that it won't be a stable government."
Rutte's party says it will reduce government spending by 20 billion euros ($24 billion) by 2015. If it does as well as predicted, it will make political history, as the Dutch liberal party has never won a national election in its 62-year history. And in a recent newspaper interview Rutte said he was looking forward to election night.
"I would love to get a chance from the Dutch voters to form a coalition. I would honor my responsibility," he said.
His win would also put an end to eight years of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's rule. His Christian Democrat party has led four governments - none of which ever completed a full term in office.
Voting with the wallet
In the last election in 2006, the liberal party came in fourth with 22 seats, following the ruling Christian Democrats (44 seats), the Social Democrats PvdA (33 seats) and the Socialists (25 seats). But the current global crisis could well help the liberals to gain those extra votes.
Whoever wins the election, one thing is clear, the Netherlands will have to cut 30 billion euros in public spending over the next five years. During the campaign, Rutte's party claimed to have best solutions for the country with TV commercials saying, "those who work the hardest deserve better."
Rutte's party wants to dramatically reduce spending
On top of the global economic crisis the Netherlands has an aging population, with more than 35 percent of the population now at least 60 years old.
Any move to swiftly raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 has failed. Last month, unions and business representatives agreed that would only happen in 2020. Traditionally this type of deal is respected by governments and although Rutte has said he doesn't agree with the proposal he is unlikely to scrap it in the face of possible social unrest.
But while he may think people should work longer, during the campaign he took great pains to reassure the voters on this issue.
The VVD is also one of the few political parties which does not want to touch the Netherlands' mortgage tax credit. Under the scheme, home owners can get money back from the government to cover part of their mortgage. The more expensive a house is, the more the government will pay back. Rutte said this is not a subsidy but instead a way of "generating wealth."
Political rat race
Never before has one issue dominated a campaign as much as this one, and never before has an election been expected to see such a major shift in the votes.
According to de Hond, up to 45 percent of the voters are likely to choose a different party than the one they supported in 2006.
"We have 150 seats in parliament and for sure Wednesday about 70 percent to 80 percent will change party," he said.
De Hond says one reason is that there are some 18 parties in the race. The exact number varies from province to province.
Balkenende has been prime minister for the past eight years
Government to the left or to the right?
The large number of parties in the Netherlands also impacts on the way the country is governed. It is hard for any party to get a majority in the lower house, and in the land of compromises, coalitions are the only way forward.
But this year, the result could be even less definitive than usual.
The center-left PvdA, with their expected 30 seats, and the prime minister's Christian Democrats (25 seats) would likely be the first to be invited to try to form a coalition. But this doesn't mean that parties like the Green Left (10 seats), the center-left D66 (10 seats) or the Socialists (12 seats) will be automatically ruled out.
Geert Wilders' anti-Islam Freedom Party is expected to get about 18 seats. That would double the number of MPs the party has in the lower house, but still, it would be a disappointing result for Wilders. Just one year ago opinion polls suggested the Freedom Party could win more than 30 seats.
According to political campaign strategist Erik Bruggen, the Freedom Party's drop in support is a result of integration and immigration policy taking a backseat in this campaign.
"What the liberal party did well was delivering a message about the economy, about work, about the creation of jobs. They took a lot of votes from Wilders because they didn't care only about immigration," he said.
"Geert Wilders didn't really think about the economy, didn't have a message about the economy. He was only talking about Islamization. And I think voters wanted something else in this time of crisis," said Bruggen.
The Freedom Party could secure the final seats needed for the 43-year-old Rutte to form a three-party coalition government, but most other parties have publicly stated they would never enter a coalition with Wilders.
Rutte has said that if his party gets the most seats, he will hope to form a government by the end of the month. But Green Left leader Femke Halsema has warned him that won't happen if he " first negotiates with the Freedom Party."
Whichever party the VVD would team up with would certainly have its work cut out for it.
Parties on the left and right of the political spectrum will almost certainly have to work together to form a coalition, and that new government is unlikely to have a large majority in parliament.
Author: C. Taylor
Editor: Chuck Penfold