AMSTERDAM Two pro-European Dutch political parties are now in a dead heat in the run-up to the September 12 general election which has been dominated by the euro zone crisis, according to an opinion poll published late on Saturday.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stepped up his attack on the opposition Labour Party at the weekend after it surged in the opinion polls to run neck and neck with his own pro-austerity Liberal Party ahead of next week's general election.
The Liberals and Labour would each win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, an Ipsos Synovate poll showed on Saturday night, putting the two parties in equal place for the first time.
Other polling agencies have shown Labour catching up with the Liberal Party in recent days.
Rutte's coalition government collapsed in April when his chief ally, the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, refused to support further austerity measures to meet European Union budget targets.
The election has highlighted a deep divide among voters over the high cost of bailing out euro zone countries and the need for budget cuts, putting the Netherlands in the spotlight because of the wider implications for Europe.
Until just a few weeks ago, it was the Socialist Party - a hard-left group led by school teacher Emile Roemer and with a track record of opposing euro zone bailouts and budget cuts - that was either in the lead or vying with the Liberals for top place in the opinion polls.
So when Rutte kicked off his election campaign two weeks ago, the Socialists bore the brunt of his attacks, and he warned voters they must choose between liberalism and socialism in the coming election.
But with Labour's surprisingly strong comeback during the past two weeks, Rutte is now focusing his attacks on his new rival.
"I note that some of Labour's plans are extremely bad for the Netherlands," Rutte said in an interview with the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf published on Saturday, adding that under Labour, fewer jobs would be created.
Rutte reiterated the comments when he took part in an election debate on national radio with Roemer, who accused him of "scare-mongering".
Late on Saturday, a new Ipsos Synovate poll showed the Liberals would get 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, up one seat from a poll by the same agency on September 5, tying with the Labour Party, which rose 3 seats in the same period.
Labour's surge at the expense of the Socialists is thanks largely to the impressive performance of the new Labour leader, Diederik Samsom, in numerous televised election debates, and Roemer's lackluster debating skills.
According to some estimates, about 40 percent of voters are still undecided, which could still lead to a surprise result after September 12.
Neither the Liberals nor Labour are anywhere close to winning a majority in parliament and, as in the past, the winner would have to form a coalition government, a process which can take weeks or months.
Both Rutte and Samsom have emphasized their differences in policies and style, seen as a tactic to prevent their supporters from switching allegiance.
But even though they are close rivals, some politicians and analysts predict the two parties will end up as partners in a broadly pro-European coalition that could deliver the necessary budgetary discipline to meet European Union deficit targets as well as measures to stimulate growth.
The Liberals and Labour have been partners in previous governments, and could form a centre-right coalition with the support of just one other party such as the socially liberal Democrats 66 party, a combination known as a "purple" coalition.
"A purple cabinet of Liberals, Labour and D66 is a done deal" said Wilders in a tweet on Saturday, adding that Rutte's warning of Labour's threat to the nation was just "crocodile tears".
The following shows parliamentary seats projected in recent polls plus the outcome of the last election in 2010.
(Reporting by Sara Webb)