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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 06:00 GMT
Dutch emerge from doldrums
By Sam Wilson
BBC News

A man at a PC in Amsterdam
Business in the Netherlands has taken off over the past year

After a tumultuous five years, it seems the Dutch may be sailing back into calmer waters.

Two high-profile murders, a crisis over relations with Muslims and tensions with the EU shook the Netherlands' relaxed and confident outlook deeply.

But a strong economic recovery has lifted spirits, and sparked a remarkable political turnaround ahead of Wednesday's general election.

The centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is claiming credit for the revival, and appears to have been rewarded, with the latest polls suggesting it will come first in the election and lead the next government.

Only in March the government's unpopular policies led to a big win for the opposition Labour Party in local elections.

But CDA spokesman Marcel Meyer says the austerity measures are now paying off.

"The economic position of the Netherlands is very good. Economic growth is the largest in the EU, and unemployment is much less than four years ago," he says.

"There is a direct relationship between the economic improvement and the rise in the polls."

Business leaders say that while the stimulus has been provided by increasing demand in the international economy, structural reforms enacted by the government have primed the Netherlands to take advantage.

Now there is a feelgood factor... There's been a fierce turnaround in the past few months
Roalf Van der Kooy
Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers
Roalf Van der Kooy, of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers, cites the "very bold steps" of cutting company taxes, opening healthcare to private competition, and strictly limiting benefits for unemployed and disabled people.

"Flexibility in the social security system is much higher because of reforms, so you can pick up much more quickly when the economy picks up," he says.

"Now there is a feelgood factor - that's one of the reasons why the PM and his party are doing so well. There's been a fierce turnaround in the past few months."

He predicts that even if the Labour Party joins the next government, there will not be a change of tack now.

"The dirty job has been done for them."

Mutiny

The "feelgood factor" is markedly different from the disillusionment evident in the Netherlands in the past few years.

In the run-up to the 2002 poll, maverick populist Pim Fortuyn looked to be on the verge of taking power by playing on anti-immigration sentiment.

Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende
Jan Peter Balkenende has pressed the right buttons with employers

His murder, followed two years later by that of film-maker Theo Van Gogh, left the Dutch searching their souls for explanations and answers.

When the referendum on the EU constitution came round in 2005, even committed pro-Europeans joined the mutiny, delivering a resounding 61% "No".

But opinion polls suggest the rebellious mood has subsided, and that people will opt for the big parties, not the marginal ones.

Labour Party leader Wouter Bos hopes to rally enough support in the last few days to retake first place, or at least force his party into a "grand coalition" with the CDA.

He says the government's welfare cuts have meant the economy has expanded at the expense of the poor and the middle classes, while the rich have only gained.

"We want a more social Netherlands," says the party's campaign manager Marco Esser.

"There is a big gap between the poor people and the better-off."

'Pyjama day'

He cites poor standards of care for the elderly as a problem the government "has done nothing about".

Staffing at government-funded care homes is so short, he says, that in some, only one in five residents is taken out in the open air once a month.

102-year-old Dutch actor Johannes Heesters
Care for the Netherlands' elderly is an election issue

Arno Heltzel of the Catholic Union for the Elderly, the Netherlands' biggest organisation for the aged, confirms that the situation in some facilities is desperate.

"In some homes they will announce a 'pyjama day', when people will not be helped into their clothes because there are not enough staff."

He is angry, he says, because "in a rich country like the Netherlands there are not enough resources to look after elderly people".

Polls suggest many left-wing voters dissatisfied with the government's spending cuts seem to be ready to turn to the Socialist Party, rather than Labour's Mr Bos, whom they believe sounds too willing to jump into a coalition bed with the CDA.

But the atmosphere for protest voting seems to have evaporated, and right-wing parties are unlikely to figure, says Andy Clark, political commentator for Radio Netherlands.

Anti-immigration and pro-integration policies have now been adopted by the political mainstream, neutralising them as an issue.

"The sharp edges of the immigration debate have gone. People want moves on integration, but see that this is being done," says Mr Clark.

It would be wrong to say the Netherlands' self-confidence has returned, he says, as "the uncertainty is still there".

"But some of the heat and passion has dissipated". After passing through a turbulent period, he says, "the dust has settled".


SEE ALSO
Country profile: The Netherlands
25 Jul 06 |  Country profiles
Liberalism under pressure
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Dutch pledge Islamist crackdown
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