Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose pro-austerity Liberals are running neck and neck with the opposition Labour Party two days before an election, would best serve the country's interests in Europe, according to a new poll on Monday.
Rutte, prime minister since October 2010 until his coalition collapsed in April 2012 over budget cuts, scored highest on leadership and competence, with 52 percent of those surveyed saying he was a "real leader", while only 41 percent saw his main rival, Labour leader Diederik Samsom, in those terms.
"Rutte is the man we can best send to Brussels to get the most for the Netherlands from the bureaucrats: the Liberal Party leader scores best on qualities including 'competence' and 'real leadership'," said Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, which commissioned the poll by TNS Nipo and University of Amsterdam and which is generally considered a left-leaning publication.
Just over three-quarters, or 76 percent, of those surveyed said what the country really needed now was a "brave and dedicated leader".
Rutte's government collapsed when his chief ally, the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, refused to support further austerity measures to meet European Union budget targets.
The run-up to the parliamentary election on September 12 has been dominated by the euro zone crisis, and is considered a microcosm of the wider European debate over austerity versus stimulus as the way out of the debt crisis.
Dutch voters are divided over the demands for massive bailouts for Europe's so-called budget sinners, particularly Greece, and for austerity measures at home that chip away at their cherished welfare benefits.
The Netherlands has long been regarded as a core euro zone member and one of Germany's staunchest allies in pushing for fiscal discipline.
In his election campaign, Rutte promised voters Greece would not get any more money, whereas Samsom, who wants the Netherlands to be granted longer to meet the EU budget targets, has said Greece may have to be given more time if it is to have a chance of staying in the euro.
The latest opinion polls have shown a big swing towards the pro-European parties that have backed such bailouts, particularly Labour, largely at the expense of two populist parties - the hard-left Socialists and Wilders's anti-euro Freedom Party - which take a far more euro sceptic line.
The Liberal Party, which promotes the interests of business in the trade-dependent economy, and Labour, more of a social democrat party, would each win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, an Ipsos Synovate poll on Saturday night showed, putting the two parties level for the first time.
Until just a few weeks ago, it was the Socialist Party - led by school teacher Emile Roemer and with a track record of opposing euro zone bailouts and budget cuts - that was either in the lead or vying with the Liberals for top place in the opinion polls.
But Labour has surged at the expense of the Socialists, thanks largely to the impressive performance of Samsom, its leader since March, in numerous televised election debates, while Roemer's debating skills have failed to impress.
The Volkskrant poll found that Samsom was seen as the most honest politician, while Rutte was seen as the most cunning leader. Roemer was seen as the "nicest" and "honest" but scored worse on competence and leadership than Samsom and Rutte.
(Reporting by Gilbert Kreijger and Thomas Escritt; Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Will Waterman)