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September 21, 2017

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Dutch vote may affect EU over debt crisis

THE HAGUE, Netherlands--Dutch voters could influence the way the European Union tackles the debt crisis as they choose a new parliament Wednesday in a test of support for stringent austerity measures.

The export-dependent Netherlands is a founding member of the EU and has long been a staunch supporter of the bloc's open market. But many Dutch voters have begun questioning their role in the now 27-nation EU since the debt crisis erupted in 2009, feeling that their wealthy nation is paying too high a price to help bail out countries like Greece and Portugal.

Meanwhile, domestic spending cuts are increasingly unpopular as the Dutch economy has barely recovered from a recession last year.

Wednesday's election has boiled down to a tight race between the free-market VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the center-left Labor Party led by Diederik Samsom, with smaller parties trailing.

The Dutch proportional representation system guarantees a coalition government and whichever party wins the most in the 150-seat House of Representatives will take the lead in choosing the parties that make up the next ruling coalition.

Rutte is a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and supports her austerity agenda for reining in the debt crisis. Samsom is closer to French President Francois Hollande, who favors government spending to spur economic growth.

Voters "have still only one day to make the Netherlands stronger and more socially responsible," Samsom said as he voted in the western city of Leiden.

Rutte says the Netherlands faces a fundamental choice — either the left's solution of spending on job-creation programs while government debt rises, or the austerity approach he has pursued with Merkel — bringing down the budget deficit while investing in roads and education to stimulate the economy.

"Will we continue with our close relationship with Germany and Finland and fighting the euro crisis, or will we shift toward a more France-oriented Europe, which I will be against?" Rutte said after voting.

Samsom argues that Rutte's approach to the debt crisis has failed in this nation of 16.7 million, whose unemployment rate is one of Europe's lowest but has been rising in recent months.

"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 analyst Adriaan Schout of the Clingendael think tank.

At Amsterdam's city hall, Amrita Kooij said she usually votes VVD but this time chose Labor.

"Rutte had his chance," she said. "I think it's time for policies that are a little more liberal."

Wednesday's vote was the fifth election in the Netherlands in just over a decade and leaders say they want to form a coalition strong enough to survive its four-year term.

Rutte's minority coalition collapsed in April after just 18 months when anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders withdrew his support following weeks of negotiations on an austerity package aimed at bringing down the budget deficit. He offers voters the most radical choice — pledging to pull the Netherlands out of the EU and ditch the euro currency if he wins power.

"It is an important day for Holland and a historical day, whether we stay independent or if we become a province of the European super state," Wilders said as he voted on the outskirts of The Hague.

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