Kay van de Linde, one of Holland’s most seasoned political strategists, did not see it coming: The few seconds on Dutch television late last month which turned the country’s election campaign upside down. Deep into the four major candidates’ opening debate Aug. 27, the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte ripped into his Labor Party rival, and in the process mischaracterized his job-creation program. The challenger, Diederik Samsom, shot back with five words, “nu doet u het weer”—“you’re doing it again,” a reference to Rutte’s reputation for blurring the facts. Glued to the television, van de Linde—who had spent decades in New York running U.S. political campaigns—gasped. Samsom, he was sure, had stolen the line from Ronald Reagan, who eviscerated President Jimmy Carter in a 1980 debate, by saying, “There you go again.” And just like then, the line was a game-changer. “It set the stage. It was a key moment,” van de Linde told TIME. “Samsom became a trustworthy alternative.”
When millions of Dutch voters go to the polls on Wednesday to choose their new government, it will be a measure in part of the candidates’ performances on air. From being a distant third just three weeks ago, Samsom edged into a narrow lead in polls taken before Tuesday night’s final, seventh debate. That is a stunning rise for a long-time environmental activist for Greenpeace, whom most believed was a long shot. And while victory is far from certain—the government is run by complex coalitions—Samsom’s emergence as a leader might be a gauge too of changing campaign tactics, in a country where elections have long been fought on ideas, not personalities. “This has been a totally unexpected development,” says van de Linde. “Here was a wild man, who morphed into a quiet, thoughtful, self-confident, Prime Minister-type candidate. It has been incredible to watch.”
To be sure, Dutch voters face critical policy choices too, principally how to handle Europe’s deep economic crisis. Although Holland is a tiny, flat speck on the map, with just 16 million people, it is a founding EU member, and so analysts have cast the election as a sign of the EU’s handling of the crisis. At stake is whether to approve a third bailout package to Greece, whose mountainous debt is threatening to force the country to abandon the euro. Samsom backs another bailout for Greece, arguing that the euro is critical to the Dutch economy; Rutte says no, arguing that the EU should instead punish member states that blow their budgets. With such a stark choice on Wednesday, Dutch voters could have a major impact on the rest of Europe—with potential implications for the American economy, and hence on the U.S. presidential campaign, too. It will help “shape the political backdrop of the Eurozone crisis for months to come,” according to Citi analysts Tina Fordham and Jürgen Michels, quoted in the Financial Times last month, who believe there is “growing bailout fatigue in Europe’s core countries.”
Then there are domestic concerns. While Holland is one of the few EU countries to retain its AAA credit rating, with a 6% unemployment rate, political analysts say that the typically cautious Dutch are wary of being dragged down by the euro crisis, and are keen to protect their economic vitality. But while many believe the state’s generous public services will inevitably need trimming, there is deep division over how to do so—a mirror, in some way, of the political issues roiling Washington. Rutte wants sharp cuts, and has already raised the country’s retirement age from 65 to 67. Samsom wants to preserve cherished public health care programs. “There is a lot of argument about the way we have to cut the welfare state,” says Philip de Praag, an associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. “Are we going to pay more for health insurance? Cut back state expenditures? That’s all very important for voters,” he says.
And yet, despite the high stakes in this small country, the Dutch campaign has lasted just three short weeks. Holland’s far-right leader Geert Wilders prompted an early election last April after pulling out of coalition talks with Rutte’s Liberal Party. In recent weeks support has dropped for Wilders’ Freedom Party, as well as for the left-wing Socialist leader Emile Roemer, who was judged to have been a less-than-stellar debater. But the 10 candidates did not begin campaigning until late August, once the Dutch had returned from their long summer vacation. In the opinion of van de Linde, who for 18 years ran U.S. political campaigns as a strategist for the Garth Group in New York, and now runs a media strategy company in the Dutch city of Hilversum, the lightning campaign has deeply affected the elections. “In such a compressed time frame, debates are much more important than they normally are,” he says. “You don’t have time to recover.”
From the vantage point of his U.S. experience, including running campaigns for Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Arlen Specter, van de Linde says these elections have been a stark contrast—and of course, have cost a miniscule fraction of even the smallest American race. Each major party has spent roughly €2 million ($2.6 million)—less than 1 euro per vote—from its members’ annual dues. And little of that money is spent on television ads, which parties still regard as pricey, especially compared with the free publicity they get through Holland’s many talk shows. And although six out of 10 political candidates were excluded from the televised debates—they were deemed too minor—none chose to buy TV time to state his case, van de Linde says. In Holland, van de Linde says, “the ads are generally very generic, not hard hitting, very soft.”
There are signs of change, however. De Praag says he has noticed an uptick in television time, as candidates have begun to realize that they might be able to change people’s minds in a tight election; he believes Wednesday’s election could be won by just 30,000 to 50,000 votes. “The TV ads are increasing, certainly from two years ago,” when Rutte won the last election, de Praag says. “Most parties now think it is the most important part of the campaign. They can reach most voters.”
Van de Linde thinks that is a good thing—though he adds that the U.S. campaign spending is extreme. He believes candidates should begin stating their case in paid ads, rather than allowing pundits and journalists to dictate the campaign’s themes. But he admits that the Dutch might not be ready for his hard-charging campaigning style. No candidate, he says, has hired him as a consultant in this election. “I advocate a more U.S.-style approach to political campaign, and as a consequence, I often run into a wall of Dutch culture,” he says. “The Dutch want to keep their own way of doing things.” Other than borrowing a crucial phrase from America’s Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.