BUSINESS

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte wins big despite EU financial crisis

09/13/2012 05:10 EDT | Updated 11/12/2012 05:12 EST
THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The Netherlands' conservative interim leader seems set to form a coalition with the Labor party following a major election victory seen as confirmation of Dutch voters' support for the European Union.

In a boost for EU unity in fighting the continent's debt crisis, the two mainstream pro-EU parties defeated both the euroskeptic Socialist Party and populist Geert Wilders, whose party suffered big losses in Wednesday's vote.

With 98 per cent of votes counted early Thursday, interim Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD surged to 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament and could theoretically form a two-party coalition with the centre-left Labor party of Diederik Samsom, which pushed up its tally of seats to 39.

"This is a strong boost," Rutte said, although he acknowledged that there was work to do.

"We have to get to work to make sure a stable Cabinet is formed as soon as possible," Rutte said. The task at hand, he said, was "to enable this country to emerge stronger from this crisis, to continue to reduce our government's deficit, to continue to make our economy grow, to continue our upward trend."

Leaders in Greece, Italy and France were swept from power by an electorate disgruntled with the impact of Europe's debt crisis, but Rutte's VVD increased its seats in parliament by a quarter despite a program of austerity. It was a result that stunned poll experts and the nation at large.

"It is a very strong message from the Dutch public that they are not punishing parties that want to be credible with their solutions," said Piotr Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy Studies.

Both Rutte and Samsom are committed to Europe, which should ease coalition talks, but they see different solutions to the debt crisis, which could hinder the quick formation of a new government.

Rutte wants to stay the course, which has aligned him with the austerity-driven policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but Samson is calling for change.

"We can turn the ship around," said Samsom, a centre-left lawmaker seen as politically close to the camp of French President Francois Hollande, who is leaning more toward spending his way out of trouble with job-boosting programs.

As on the European stage, those two visions will be clashing in the coalition talks.

"Politically, they should be able to strike a deal within days," said Adriaan Schout of the Clingendael think-tank . "They may want to show the public that they are fighting a bit harder and take some more time."

The election was cast as a virtual referendum on Europe amid the continent's crippling debt crisis, but the result was a stark rejection of the most radical critic of the EU, anti-Islam firebrand Wilders, whose Freedom Party was set to lose nine seats, dropping to 15.

Wilders' calls to ditch the euro may have been too radical for voters, or he may have lost support for walking out of talks with Rutte in April on hammering out an austerity package to rein in the Dutch budget deficit.

"They will be celebrating in Brussels," Wilders said of the seat of most EU institutions.

Rutte's ally Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the conservative Alliance of Liberats and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, said the result went well beyond Dutch borders.

"They are a slap in the face of anti-European extremism and populism," he said Thursday. "Dutch voters clearly chose to reinforce pro-European measures."

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Associated Press reporter Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this story.