In a decisive victory for Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, the center-right government of the Netherlands retained its parliamentary majority today in national elections dominated by renewed anxieties about nuclear power in the wake of the Chernobyl reactor accident.
The election outcome was seen as a surprising expression of support for a ruling coalition that has felt compelled over the past four years to impose unpopular austerity policies and to approve deployment of new U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles in the face of massive street protests.
The opposition Labor Party has firmly rejected cruise missile deployment and declared its intention to keep the weapons out of the country if it regains power. Political commentators said Labor's antimissile position may have hurt the party at the polls, because much of the Dutch population has grown weary of the cruise debate and did not wish to see it revived again in a new Labor-led government.
Lubbers' Christian Democrats won 54 of parliament's 150 seats, nine more than in the 1982 election. This gain compensated for the poor performance of their right-wing partners, the Liberals, who lost nine seats to drop to 27. The Labor Party picked up five seats for a total of 52 but ceded its traditional role as the country's leading political force to the Christian Democrats.
The success of the Christian Democrats was generally attributed to Lubbers, 47, whose popularity has grown steadily since he took power in 1982. The prime minister has acquired broad support for his adroit handling of several political controversies, including the six-year battle to deploy cruise missiles and planned legislation to permit euthanasia.
Following the April 26 Chernobyl accident, a resurgence of antinuclear sentiment threatened to undermine the Dutch governing parties because of their commitment to build up to four new nuclear power stations in the next decade.
Lubbers decided two weeks ago to halt all plans to construct the nuclear plants pending completion of a study on the impact of the Soviet nuclear accident. The ambitious Dutch nuclear program was intended to provide one-third of the country's electricity by the year 2000, but there are now serious doubts that the projected plants will ever be built.
Joop den Uyl, the Labor Party leader, charged that "a government that made the wrong decision once could not be trusted again" to set the country's course on nuclear power. But Lubbers' bold step proved to be effective in blunting "the fallout factor" that appeared initially to boost the fortune of the Labor Party, which wants to abolish all nuclear power stations.
In a television debate on the eve of the election, den Uyl sought to depict the government's reversal on nuclear power as a fatal blow to its credibility. But Lubbers contended that his policies merely reflected a "safety first" approach that would permit full examination of the risks of nuclear power.
Labor was widely expected to attract many protest votes because of the weak state of the Dutch economy. The country's unemployment rate still hovers above 15 percent, one of the highest in Europe. Dutch profits from natural gas sales have plunged along with the slump in oil prices.
Public discontent with the government's austerity measures, which are designed to reduce the budget deficit by trimming the country's generous welfare benefits, was also considered a significant trend running in Labor's favor.
But most of the voters' wrath for the tough economic policies was apparently focused on the right-wing Liberals, who have proclaimed the need to embrace free market principles and to cut back drastically on services provided by the state. "The fact that the people deserted the Liberals in this election shows how much they were against the budget cuts and the missiles," remarked den Uyl after the initial results came in.
The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, were clearly aided by Lubbers' personal appeal. The party campaigned on the slogan, "Let Lubbers Finish the Job."
Political analysts said there is a strong public perception that as head of government, Lubbers made courageous choices on tough political issues that have plagued the country for years and that he was rewarded today with a resounding mandate to continue his work as prime minister.
Facing a possible collapse of his coalition government two years ago, Lubbers crafted an ingenious compromise to solve a political crisis over the cruise missiles. He put the onus on the Soviet Union to freeze or reduce its deployment of SS20 missiles aimed at Western Europe in return for Dutch rejection of the cruises.
When the Soviets continued to expand their SS20 arsenal, Lubbers was able to persuade a majority of parliament to favor installing the 48 cruise missiles by 1988. He argued that since good-faith efforts to keep the missiles out by asking for Soviet restraint had failed, the Netherlands was obliged to fulfill its part in alliance plans to modernize nuclear weapons in the absence of an arms control agreement.