THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Job creation was the hot topic Tuesday a day before the Dutch parliamentary election.
Voters are worried about jobs even though the Netherlands has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the 27-nation European Union — 5.3 percent in July — and one of the lowest youth joblessness rates — 9.2 percent compared to 22.5 percent for the overall EU.
On the last day of campaigning, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the country faced a fundamental choice: the leftist solution of spending on job-creation schemes while government debt rises, or the austerity approach he has pursued with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — bringing down the budget deficit while investing in roads and education to stimulate the economy.
The center-left Labor Party led by former Greenpeace activist Diederik Samsom is neck-and-neck with Rutte's free-market VVD party in the polls. It says Rutte's approach to tackling the debt crisis has failed in this nation of 16.7 million.
"Since Rutte came to power, unemployment has increased by 100,000, including a majority of youths. We consider this a major problem," said Jauke Lodder of the Labor Party's youth wing.
The difference between Rutte and Samsom reflects the deep divisions within the EU and among the 17 nations who use the common euro currency. Should nations spend their way out of trouble or pare back spending to get government finances on track and lower borrowing costs?
Carrying red roses and youth unemployment graphics, Lodder and others walked through The Hague on Tuesday drumming up support for Labor's plans to spend money on job-boosting programs and education.
A few blocks away, Rutte campaigned on the same theme but warned against the leftist solution embodied by France's new president, Francois Hollande.
"France is a country of high deficits, high taxes, low growth and that wouldn't be good for the Netherlands," Rutte said. "The Germans have the same philosophy as us — low debt and jobs."
Samsom says toeing the German line of belt tightening and budget cuts will eventually cost even more jobs. His message seems to be striking a chord — he has made a stunning rise in the polls in recent weeks thanks to strong debate performances.
"It has become a left-right fight and it will be about a little bit more like the Merkel line or a little bit more like the Hollande line," said Adriaan Schout of the Clingendael think tank.
Further to the left, Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer said other parties' programs will take too long to tackle unemployment.
"Some parties are promising jobs in 2040," he said. "When you stay at home and you don't have a job, you don't want a job in 2040, you want a job tomorrow."
Rutte's coalition fell apart last spring when key supporter Geert Wilders walked out of talks on an austerity package.
Wilders rose to prominence as an anti-Islam populist but now has been calling for the Netherlands to leave the EU and dump the euro for a return to the Dutch guilder. That platform does not appear to be gaining traction and his Freedom Party is expected to lose some of the 24 seats it won in 2010.
With the more extreme parties fading, Rutte and Samsom may be on course to be partners in a coalition government.
"These are the two parties that now have to strike a compromise," said Schout.