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Dutch Socialists Push Back at Austerity

 Roemer’s Presence in a Coalition Could Tip Balance of the Netherlands’ Approach to the Euro-Zone Crisis


BOXMEER, the Netherlands—Emile Roemer is the smiling face of an electoral force that is upending Dutch politics and threatening to challenge Europe’s German-led austerity strategy for solving the euro-zone crisis. Mr. Roemer, a former elementary-school teacher, is head of the Dutch Socialist Party, a once-fringe leftist faction that has soared in popularity ahead of the Sept. 12 elections based on a pledge to change the austerity policies of the current center-right governing coalition.

imageOpinion polls at the beginning of last week had shown Mr. Roemer’s Socialists in the lead. But his performances in two televised debates last week appear to have hurt his chances: A new Ipsos poll released Monday evening shows the Socialists trailing both the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Labor Party, the Netherlands’ traditional Leftist party, led by former Greenpeace activist Diederik Samsom.Still, if Mr. Roemer’s support holds up on election day, the Socialists would significantly boost their presence in the 150-seat lower house, where the party currently has 15 seats.

The elections are likely to be followed by horse-trading among political parties to form a government. That could be a lengthy process, given that the country’s left-leaning parties will struggle to win enough votes to form their own government, and also would be loath to join a grand coalition with the Liberals—a step Mr. Roemer has already ruled out. But Mr. Roemer’s presence in the governing coalition could prompt a sea change in the country’s approach to the crisis and help shift Europe’s strategy for saving the euro away from the austerity-first policy of Mr. Rutte.

Mr. Roemer wants the European Central Bank to play a more active role in taming the crisis, favors giving Greece more time to cut its deficit, but opposes German-led plans to surrender more national power over economic policy to Brussels, the European Union’s bureaucratic capital.

“Political union isn’t possible in this Europe where the differences are so great, between north and south,” he told reporters over the weekend while campaigning at a shopping mall in Boxmeer, a small town in the southern Netherlands where he was a local politician before becoming a member of Parliament.

The Socialists are riding a wave of discontent over tax increases and government spending cuts that have caused growth to stagnate. The unemployment rate is now 5.3%—still among the lowest in Europe but up sharply from 4.3% a year ago. Falling real-estate prices are pinching spending by Dutch households, which are saddled with some of the largest mortgage debts in Europe.

A prime target of Mr. Roemer’s campaign has been EU budget rules that call for the Netherlands to cut its government deficit to under 3% of gross domestic product by the end of next year. “People are, for me, more important than the rules,” Mr. Roemer, 50 years old, said Saturday in Boxmeer. “When it’s necessary that we are investing in our economy, even if 3% will be 4%, then we have to do that.” The crisis, he said, has shown that the EU’s economic rules, negotiated in the Dutch city of Maastricht in 1992, need far-reaching changes. “It’s not valid anymore,” Mr. Roemer said of the Maastricht agreement. “Time has changed and politicians must change too when the times change.”

Accompanied by a band cranking out tunes by Pink Floyd and Madonna, Mr. Roemer, tall and beefy with the usual smile fixed on his face, shook hands with voters, spoke with reporters and served some of the party’s trademark tomato sorbet. The sorbet comes from the Socialist Party symbol of a tomato with a white star in the middle, a throwback to its days as a protest party throwing figurative tomatoes; the white star is the only relic left of its roots as a Maoist offshoot from a 1970s-era split of the Dutch Communist Party.

The Dutch left is still divided by internal quarrels that could damp its success at the polls next week. The Socialists are competing for votes with the Dutch Labor Party, the Greens and Democrats 66. All of them would need to unite to have a chance at gaining a majority in the 150-seat Parliament and form a government, according to the latest polls.

Some of the Socialist Party’s surge in the Netherlands is due to the popularity of Mr. Roemer himself: He is seen as honest and affable. But he has lost ground in recent polls after many felt he came off vague and weak in televised debates last week.

“Roemer’s a very nice guy, but he’s too nice,” said Jos Bussers, 43, who normally votes for the Liberals but considers Mr. Rutte a “softie.” Last week’s debate convinced Mr. Bussers that Mr. Roemer isn’t ready to be prime minister, and he is now leaning toward voting for the Labor Party after the strong debate performance by its leader, Mr. Samsom.

Despite Mr. Roemer’s stance against Mr. Rutte’s budget policies, the Socialist leader’s plan would still reduce the Dutch budget deficit next year, according to the Dutch Central Planning Bureau, the official referee of government budget policy. The Socialist Party’s deficit target for next year is 2.7% of GDP—roughly in line with the 2.6% deficit targeted by Mr. Rutte’s budget plan, according to the CPB.

Mr. Roemer’s plan raises taxes on wealthier people to close the gap. It also proposes €3 billion of housing and infrastructure investments to soften the negative impact of tax increases on the Dutch economy. Mr. Rutte’s plan relies mainly on spending cuts to reduce the deficit.Mr. Roemer and Mr. Rutte appear to differ more sharply on how to fix the euro-zone crisis. Mr. Roemer said Greece could be given more time to cut its budget deficit if there is a workable program in place, a move opposed for the time being by Mr. Rutte’s government.

Dennis De Jong, a Socialist Party member of the European Parliament, said the party supports giving the euro zone’s rescue funds the power to borrow from the ECB to lend money to beleaguered euro-zone governments.

“If we would use the mechanism of creating money, getting new money, not from national governments but from the ECB, then I think [Mr. Roemer] would be in a favor of a rescue plan,” Mr. De Jong said Saturday, speaking on behalf of Mr. Roemer’s campaign. “That is the only way forward.”

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