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Party of Dutch PM Rutte extends opinion poll lead before election

Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte gestures during the Europe's Twin Challenges: Growth and Stability event in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The liberal party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued a recovery in opinion polls ahead of local elections, despite the resignation of two members of his cabinet.

The Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has over the past two weeks closed the gap with the right-wing Party for Freedom of anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, pollster Maurice de Hond said on Sunday.

The poll, based on representation in the 150-seat parliament, showed Rutte’s VVD at 23 seats, trailing Wilders’ PVV by one. The VVD has gained 6 seats, or 4 percent, during election campaigning, but is still down 18 seats, or 12 percent, from when it took power in 2012.

Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten and his deputy, State Secretary Fred Teeven, Rutte’s crime-fighting duo, resigned last Monday after acknowledging they had misled parliament about a legal settlement with a drug kingpin in 2001.

That failed to dent Rutte’s rise in the polls. Five parties are competing to become the largest in the March 18 provincial election, which also indirectly determines the composition of the upper house of parliament.

Rutte leads a coalition government with the Labour Party, but relies on several small parties in the Senate to pass laws. A defeat on Wednesday could weaken the coalition, which nearly toppled in December, just halfway into a four-year term.

Wilders, whose tough line on immigration has made him one of the most popular Dutch politicians, holds a slim lead on Rutte’s VVD, but Wilders has consistently underperformed polls on election day and a third of voters are undecided, so that could change.

Reporting By Anthony Deutsch