Few nations beat the Dutch for practicality. Befuddled voters, who have 20 or so parties to choose from in the general election on September 12th, can save hours of poring over manifestos by submitting to the StemWijzer. This government-backed website presents 30 pithy statements (“All [drug-selling] ‘coffee-shops’ in the Netherlands should be closed down”; “European supervision of banks should be implemented”), and matches voters to the party that best fits their views. Separately, the Central Planning Bureau also runs the main parties’ programmes through an economic model, to compare how each will affect things like jobs, output and, miraculously, queues on motorways. Despite these aids, the Dutch are disenchanted with politics. At J.H. Van Dijk’s cheese stall in Amsterdam’s main street market customers are fed up with all those politicians and their confusing parties. Further into town, at the Independent Outlet music store (where “corporate rock still sucks”), a young man behind the counter complains how “politicians always let you down”. A hairdresser in The Hague, who in her time has shorn plenty of MPs, cannot make up her mind. The StemWijzer is all very well, she says, but politicians “don’t do what the people vote for.”
Dutch discontent dates back to well before the euro crisis. But complex coalition politics makes the Netherlands a test bed for a question that today concerns the entire euro zone. As leaders strive to save Europe’s currency and integrate its politics, is the crisis galvanising voters and politicians, or is it driving them apart? The economy partly explains the Netherlands’ sour mood. The Dutch are thriving compared with the Greeks; unemployment, at about 5.3%, is a fifth of the rate in Greece. Yet the Dutch are not inclined to look on the sunny side: life is getting harder. The value of pensions is shrinking, and charges for services such as health care are likely to increase. Tax breaks on mortgages are bound to be cut for first time buyers, putting further downward pressure on house prices and sentiment.
Altogether, output is set to slow sharply in the second half of the year, with GDP for 2012 falling by about 0.6%. Charles Kalshoven at ING, a Dutch bank, reckons that a provisional “austerity budget” for 2013 will lop 0.5 points off growth. By the end of 2013, he says, mortgage debt will eclipse the property value of about 800,000 Dutch households—fully one in four. Optimists say that for this very reason the nation will now roll up its sleeves and sort out its difficulties. The polls predict that the largest party will be the liberal VVD, with about 35 seats—41 short of a majority. Its leader, the outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte, is an astute political tactician. Perhaps he can join other established parties to form a strong coalition. This might dare to court short-run unpopularity, calculating that steps to restore the economy and deal with the euro crisis will be rewarded at the next election in four years.