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Strong Anti-Immigration Vote Expected In Netherlands

Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right PVV party, casts his vote in The Hague.
If public opinion polls prove correct, the Party for Freedom (PVV) of anti-Islamist leader Geert Wilders should do well in today's parliamentary election in the Netherlands.

The pre-election polls indicate the party, which campaigned on a call to "stop the Islamization of the Netherlands," as doubling its number of seats in the legislature from nine to 18.

Geert Wilders has relentlessly pursued an anti-immigration line, asserting among other things that the cost of integrating the inflow of non-Western immigrants is a drain on the country's resources at a time of economic hardship.

After a surprise strong showing in local elections in February, the PVV has been taken more seriously by mainstream politicians.

Wilders was optimistic today as he cast his vote in Amsterdam. "I hope we have an excellent outcome in the results of the elections today, [an outcome that] makes it possible for us to govern, to be part of a coalition, and to change things for the better in Holland," he said. "We will have to wait and see what the outcome is, but I'm very positive that a lot of Dutch voters will support us."

But Europe's financial crisis and worries about the Dutch economy have eclipsed the issue of immigration in the intervening months.

Perhaps surprisingly, the party most in favor of stiff austerity measures is leading in the pre-election opinion polls. The center-right liberal VVD -- the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by Mark Rutte -- stands for big budget cuts, including a cut in Dutch contributions to the European Union; smaller government; and reducing benefits for immigrants.

Rutte was confident in remarks to reporters today. "Today is about [electing] the party which will be best able to take the lead in the economic recovery of the Netherlands -- and that's my party, of course," he said.

The party's financial expert, Frans Weekers, says the Dutch electorate understands the need for sacrifice to get the economy in order.

"The voter is seeing that after the [global] financial crisis, we are getting a national crisis, and...the treasury in many countries, including the Netherlands, is empty,” Weekers said. “They see that more is being spent than earned, and they realize that's not the most important message the voters are giving us is -- bring the house in order and take care that work pays off."

The big loser in the election is expected to be the Christian Democrat party of outgoing Premier Jan Peter Balkenende, which may lose nearly half its seats. It was the breakup of a coalition led by Balkenende over Dutch participation in the war in Afghanistan which precipitated the current early election.

Analysts point out that if the opinion polls prove accurate, the result is likely to make coalition building very difficult.

"With this result, it is very difficult to form a government, because even a coalition of three parties will only have a very, very slight majority in parliament,” says analyst Maurice de Hond. “So we probably need a combination of four parties and in that case we need a combination of parties from the left side and from the right side. That's always difficult because there was a big difference in the approach to the crisis between both sides of parliament."

Voting continues until 2100 Prague and local time.

with material from agency reports
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