The budget or the burka

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AMSTERDAM (AP) — For a decade, the Netherlands has been at the forefront of a Europe-wide crackdown on immigration and the debate over a perceived failure of Muslims to integrate.

But with national elections less than two weeks away, issues like banning burqas and mandatory citizenship classes have been shouldered aside in favor of the debate over how to balance the budget.

Part of the reason immigration issues are dropping on the political agenda is a national consensus that newcomers, especially from poor Muslim countries, should be limited.

But it also reflects a concern shared with the rest of Europe over the continent’s financial crisis, even though the Dutch have one of the soundest economies among the 27 members of the European Union.

All political parties are pledging spending cuts, and whatever the result, the average Dutchman will either see his taxes rise or his government benefits shrink — probably both.

A conservative candidate with strong pro-business credentials has opened up a commanding lead in polls, siphoning support from the populist anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders, who has nose-dived from first to fourth place.

Mark Rutte of the Peoples Party for Freedom and Democracy, which goes by its Dutch acronym VVD, shone in a nationally televised debate Wednesday, defending a platform that includes building nuclear plants and cutting government jobs.

“Windmills aren’t powered by wind,” Rutte jibed. “They’re powered by subsidies.”

Along with aggressive spending cuts, Rutte’s platform is almost as tough on crime and immigration as that of Wilders’ Freedom Party — for instance, making immigrants ineligible for unemployment compensation for the first 10 years after they arrive.

Wilders is known for his film “Fitna,” which offended many Muslims by linking Islam and violence. He is facing criminal prosecution under Dutch hate speech laws for comparing Islam to Naziism and calling for a ban on the Quran.

Rutte’s rise has left Wilders struggling to stand out.

Earlier this week, Wilders released calculations he says show that nonwestern immigrants are a €7 billion ($8.6 billion) annual drag on the Dutch budget because of higher criminality and unemployment rates.

But his economic platform drew groans and laughter at Wednesday’s debate for its single-minded focus on immigration. Health care costs, for example, can be cut by denying medical care to children of illegal immigrants.

“You can all laugh about it, but it’s about money,” Wilders told a skeptical audience.

“The Netherlands will have to decide. Are we an immigration country, or are we a country with social services?,” he said.

Recent polls show Rutte’s VVD taking 36 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, with former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen’s Labor the closest competitor at 29 seats. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrats are third with 25 and Wilders’ Freedom Party is fourth at 17.

Balkenende has failed to capitalize on a relatively low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent and a budget deficit that at 3.4 percent is also far better than the European average.

Political analysts say many voters are simply tired of Balkenende, who has been in power since 2002.

Meanwhile, Cohen, who was a popular executive in Amsterdam, led in national polls briefly before sliding. That is at least partly due to his poor performance in the debates.

Voters often say they appreciate Wilders’ speaking ability and his refreshing lack of political correctness, but see him as unfit to govern.

“Wilders makes the best jokes, but I don’t vote on that basis,” said Johan Bosma, an Amsterdam city employee, who supports Labor.

“The problem with Wilders is that he has no ideas how to fix things, or he has bad ideas. You can’t blame everything on one religion,” he said.

Flea market worker Assef Yoquobi said he has voted Labor in the past but not seen any results, so would probably not vote this time. “Politicians are all liars,” he said. “The VVD, it’s for rich people.”

Asked about Wilders he shook his head, no. “Crazy,” he said.