By Toby Sterling and Stephanie van den Berg
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -The Dutch go to the polls next week without caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s name on the ballot for the first time in a decade, with voters citing the economy, climate change, and reducing immigration as their top concerns.
The Nov. 22 vote is seen as a test of whether voters in one of Europe’s most prosperous countries are willing to continue funding policies such as an expensive offshore wind farms, after last year’s cost of living shock.
At least three parties are still in contention to come out on top and designate a new prime minister but none is forecast to take more than 20% of the vote, making a new centre-right coalition and no major policy shift the most likely outcome.
Political scientist Tom Louwerse said that while all voters are concerned with economic well-being, those on the left tend to be motivated by climate change worries in a country where most of the population lives below sea level.
Meanwhile restricting immigration – the issue that triggered the collapse of Rutte’s last cabinet in July – remains a key concern for both conservative and less wealthy voters.
Statistics suggest the country is doing pretty well: unemployment is below 4%, inflation is slowing, national debt is less than 50% of GDP, and official data shows the country is on track to meet its 2030 carbon emissions reduction goals.
Yet a look behind those numbers shows a host of worries over the economy and simmering resentment over plans to cut the number of livestock farms, and over Rutte himself, who has acknowledged he might have overstayed his welcome.
Among those seeking to replace him is his protege, a reformist who might be described as radical centrist, and a traditional opponent on the left.
Rutte’s successor as a leader of his pro-business VVD party, Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz, is a Turkish immigrant tough on immigration seeking to become the country’s first woman prime minister.
Yesilgoz, her party polling around 18%, says she would stick with current climate plans. But she rejected calls to increase spending, arguing Dutch voters already face Europe’s highest electricity bills.
She also warned that increased tax and regulatory burdens proposed by the left would prompt large companies to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them.
Among her main contenders is lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt, a centrist policy wonk who founded his own party after breaking with the Christian Democrats, also polling around 18%.
Omtztigt has proposed a raft of reforms, including ending subsidies on electric cars and solar panels he says benefit the wealthy. He also suggested seeking exemptions from European Union rules on agriculture and immigration arguing they do not make sense in the densely populated Netherlands.
“Prices have gone up so much that some people can no longer afford to make ends meet and that’s why I’m going to vote for other parties that can change this,” said retiree Kees Boeren, 68, who said supported Rutte previously but is now considering voting for Omtzigt’s “New Social Contract” Party on Nov. 21.
On the left, former European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans is leading a combined Labour and Green Left Party ticket in hopes of forming a a centrist coalition, or at least thwarting the remote chance of a right-wing takeover.
Anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders has been seeking to soften his image in hopes his Freedom Party, which is fourth with 12%, could enter government with Rutte gone.
Latest polls show Labor/Green Left third with 16% despite Timmermans’ credentials and its popular plan to hike the minimum wage to 16 euros per hour.
At the country’s largest ever climate demonstration on Nov. 12, which drew more than 70,000 demonstrators, Timmermans told Reuters Netherlands could afford both high living standards and strong climate policies.
“We’re a very vulnerable country if you look at climate change,” he said.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling and Stephanie van der BergEditing by Tomasz Janowski)