Another 'no' to EU treaty likely as Dutch head to polls
Dutch voters began casting ballots in a momentous referendum on the EU constitution, with polls pointing to a resounding "no" vote that could kill off the continent's charter, just three days after France's rejection.
Polling stations opened for the Netherlands' 11.6 million voters at 7:30 am (0530 GMT) and were to close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), with the first estimates of the result expected almost immediately after polls close.
"They're even waiting for us to open. That's unusual," said one woman working at polling station in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam where a handful of people were lined up.
Latest opinion polls predicted a large turnout for the first referendum here in more than 200 years, and an even greater win for the "no" side than in France, where opponents to the constitution took 54.87 percent of the vote.
A "no" vote would be the nightmare "domino effect" feared by European leaders: a second founding member of the alliance rejecting a treaty that must be ratified by all 25 EU states to become effective.
"The moment of truth," declared the front page of the Dutch centrist daily Algemeen Dagblad. "Citizens face historic choice," Christian center daily Trouw said. The center-left paper De Volkskrant claimed: " The Hague fears a 'no' from voters."
The Netherlands' largest circulation daily, the Telegraaf, simply asked: "Yes or No?" in bold black letters on its front page.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende made a last-ditch appeal to voters to support the constitution on the eve of the vote.
"If you want to move the economy forward you must vote 'yes'," he said in a television interview.
"I believe a 'no' vote is not in the interest of the Netherlands nor in the interest of Europe."
Despite desperate late campaigning by the "yes" camp, polls carried out Tuesday indicated that nearly 60 percent of Dutch voters were ready to oppose the constitution.
The Dutch referendum is not binding but parliament has promised to follow the will of the people provided turnout exceeds 30 percent.
Balkenende's center-right coalition government, which has a 19 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll, instills little confidence in the Netherlands.
While heads have already begun to roll in France over what was a catastrophic referendum result for the government, observers in the Netherlands insist that there will be no political fallout at home if the people vote "no".
Here, it was the Dutch parliament that pushed for the referendum against the wishes of the government, which instead wanted parliament -- with more than 80 percent MPs favoring the treaty -- to decide.
After months of indifference to the constitution, both in the media and in the political debate, the campaign heated about three weeks ago when polls revealed that the "no" camp was clearly in the lead.
Surveys show that the Dutch fear that a rapidly expanding EU could swallow up their tiny nation, and that a concentration of power in Brussels could eventually force the Dutch to revise liberal laws on cannabis, same-sex marriages and euthanasia, part of the national identity.
Also, Dutch voters appear to have little confidence that national politicians will protect their interests.
At the beginning of the referendum campaign, voters were shaken when the head of the central bank admitted that the country's former currency, the guilder, had been devalued just before the switch to the euro.
This backed up long-held consumer charges that the move to the European common currency had led to massive price hikes.
Anti-immigrant sentiments and, at least in part, worries that the constitution could pave the way for Turkey to enter the Union are other explanations for the strong "no" in the Netherlands.
The disparate parties campaigning for a "no" range from right-wing populists to the far-left and includes two small Christian parties.
The remaining members of parliament and most trade unions and employer organizations have come out in favor of the treaty.