- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, Jan. 22 (UPI) — The Netherlands is expected to swing sharply to the left Wednesday as Dutch voters deliver their verdict on the right-wing government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which collapsed in October after less than 100 days in office.

Opinion polls show the opposition Labor Party on course to replace the Christian Democrats as the Netherlands' largest grouping, boosting the left's chances of returning to power.

A survey published by polling firm Interview/NSS on the eve of Wednesday's general election showed a dramatic rise in support for the Labor Party, which is predicted to almost double its number of parliamentary seats from 23.

Support for the Christian Democrats and Liberals — the two main parties in the ruling coalition — has nonetheless remained solid, with both parties expected to win 40 and 29 seats apiece.

But the party of slain populist politician Pim Fortuyn is set for a drubbing in Wednesday's election, with polls forecasting it to lose all but a handful of its 26 seats in the 150-member chamber.

Fortuyn, an openly gay former sociology professor who rallied against Islam, was gunned down just days before a May 2002 general election, prompting a massive sympathy vote for his self-named political vehicle, the List Pim Fortuyn.

However, the party of political novices proved incapable of governing and triggered the collapse of Balkenende's three-party coalition in October.

Most of the 1.6 million voters who went for the LPF in May have returned to the Labor camp after a spirited campaign by the party's telegenic young leader Wouter Bos, a 39-year-old former Shell manager.

The leftist party, which led the Netherlands for much of the 1990s before it was kicked out of office in May, has also attracted ex-LPF supporters by toughening its stance on crime and immigration — the two issues that have dominated the short but intense campaign.

Despite trouncing his rivals in a series of television debates and propelling his party into pole position, Bos has ruled out becoming prime minister should his party emerge as the country's largest political force.

On Monday, Bos ended weeks of speculation by nominating Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen as the party's candidate for prime minister. Cohen, whose grandparents died in the Auschwitz concentration camp, would become the Netherlands' first Jewish premier if the Labor party tops the poll.

However, even if the leftist grouping emerges triumphant late Wednesday, it will be forced to share power with the Christian Democrats, the only party capable of mustering enough support to form a governing coalition with the left or right.

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