AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The parties of the Dutch ruling coalition received a stinging rebuke in local elections on Wednesday, after years of sluggish growth turned voters away from the two parties, which have stuck grimly to austerity since taking national office in 2012.
Labour, junior partner to the pro-business Liberals, lost their position as largest party in Amsterdam after more than 60 years to the progressive liberal D66 party. In The Hague, seat of the Dutch government, Labour was pushed into third place, behind D66 and Geert Wilders' populist Freedom Party.
It also lost the industrial and maritime powerhouse of Rotterdam to Liveable Rotterdam, a rightist local party.
"The government parties are being punished for austerity and for tax increases," said Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam's VU University, adding that the centre-left Labour Party's losses in the country's largest cities were "historic".
Long seen as a member of the euro zone core, its economy tightly bound to Europe's German economic heartlands, the Netherlands has seen years of sluggish growth since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, lingering in recession even as, further up the Rhine river, Germany's recovery gathered pace.
The country lost one of three coveted triple A sovereign credit ratings in November, and dissatisfaction at continued high unemployment and depressed consumer confidence have turned voters in a country that once prided itself on its liberalism towards populist parties on the left and the right.
A nascent economic recovery may have come too late for Labour, whose voters were always more grudging in their support for the coalition's programme of tax hikes and cuts in social spending in particular.
Labour's drubbing could fuel dissatisfaction within the party over the course to which it has signed up. "The results of our policies are coming in too slowly," said party leader Diderik Samsom.
But Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister, promised the coalition would not change course.
"We must now make sure that there is growth in jobs, and carry on with reforms to the labour and housing markets to make sure we emerge stronger from the economic crisis," he told Dutch public television.
National elections must be held before March 2017, by which time the two parties hope an improving economy will have lifted them in the polls.
The local polls in some 400 municipalities have greater import than in previous years because key areas of social spending, including the politically sensitive fields of healthcare and benefits, are set to be decentralised, giving municipalities more power than they have ever had before.
Wilders had been widely expected to top the poll in The Hague, but his advance in the polls will still boost his party's morale ahead of European Parliament elections in late May.
While votes were being counted, Wilders, who claims Muslim immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime and benefit fraud, rallied his supporters in The Hague, asking them if they wanted to see "more or fewer Moroccans in this city."
"Fewer, fewer, fewer," the crowd chanted in reply to a smiling Wilders, who had told the audience he was exercising the "great good" of freedom of expression.
"We'll arrange that," he replied.
According to polls, the Freedom Party, which wants to quit the 28-member EU bloc, will become the largest Dutch party in the Brussels assembly.
Elected in September 2012 on a platform of fiscal rectitude, the governing coalition has seen its popularity melt away as it pushed through successive rounds of cuts in a bid to bring the budget deficit below the EU's 3 percent ceiling.
If a national election were held today, the two parties would win just 35 seats in the 150-member parliament, compared to the 79 they hold now, according to pollster Maurice De Hond, while Wilders' breed of anti-EU populism would make the Freedom Party the largest single party, with 27 seats.