- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Jan. 14 (UPI) — Eight months after being kicked out of office, the Dutch Labor Party could be heading back to power with a slew of opinion polls showing the center-left grouping rapidly gaining ground on the governing Christian Democrats ahead of a Jan.22 vote.

At the end of the first week of campaigning, a poll-of-polls carried out by Dutch TV program Nova showed the Labor Party at 22.5 percent — up almost 8 points from their disastrous showing in last year's elections and 4 points higher than a poll taken at the start of the race.

Another survey published by the De Hond polling firm Tuesday even predicted that Labor, which ruled the Netherlands throughout much of the 1990s, would emerge as the country's biggest political party after next week's vote.

Support for the party of caretaker Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende appears to be fading fast, both polls say. The Nova study shows the Christian Democrats down 4 points since the start of campaigning, though it still expects the center-right grouping to take 30 percent of the popular vote.

The aggregate poll also shows a dramatic slump in support for the party of slain populist politician Pim Fortuyn, which gained 17 percent of the vote after its leader was shot dead days before the May 2001 election.

The anti-immigration grouping, which is a junior member of Balkenende's three-party coalition, is predicted to pick up less than 5 percent of the vote this time around.

The Christian Democrats had hoped to dispense of their List Pim Fortuyn allies and govern solely with their Liberal partners after Jan. 22. However, latest polls show the two parties are unlikely to muster enough votes to rule together, boosting the chances of a grand coalition between Labor and their center-right rivals.

If Labor's rise is translated into parliamentary seats it would represent a dramatic turnaround for the party which came fourth in last year's dramatic elections.

Dutch member of the European Parliament Michiel van Hulten told United Press International that the grouping's surge in support was partly due to frustration with Balkenende's government, which came to power promising to shake up Dutch politics but collapsed in October after less than 100 days in office.

"The electorate was hoping for a government that would cut through the red tape and get quick solutions to problems, but all voters have seen is political infighting and politics-as-usual."

Van Hulten also credits 39-year-old leader Wouter Bos, who took over the reigns of the party after last year's electoral debacle, with lifting the left's fortunes.

"In the past we sometimes made policy from an ivory tower. The new leadership is keen to learn lessons from the people rather than decide what it thinks is important for the people."

Peter van Ham, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague, believes Bos is a "fresh new face who sells his party well."

Opinion polls taken after last week's two TV debates between party leaders showed Bos the clear winner, with Balkenende judged to have performed poorly in both showdowns.

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