World Bulletin/News Desk
Could Diederik Samsom be the next Dutch prime minister? The question would have seemed preposterous even two weeks ago when his Labour Party was languishing in the opinion polls.
But with less than a week to go before the Dutch vote in a general election on Sept. 12, Labour is neck and neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal Party and the 41-year-old Samsom is more popular than the 45-year-old Rutte.
Samsom's meteoric rise is largely thanks to one assured and confident performance after another in a marathon of televised election debates over the past fortnight, plus canny planning.
A former Greenpeace activist who by his own account was arrested 10 times but never charged, Samsom became Labour leader in March 2012, taking over a party that had lost its way.
He and his closest allies and advisers gathered over a weekend to thrash out the party's new vision and then went on the road to spread the message to party members. By the time Rutte's government fell in April over budget cuts, Samsom was on the offensive.
Labour, which had consistently supported the Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition on Europe and euro zone bailouts, refused to back its emergency budget package, although some other smaller parties did.
Instead, Samsom called for growth stimulus rather than "cold austerity" measures to pull out of the crisis.
Those who know and watch Samsom say he has learned to take a less aggressive stance and hone his debating skills. That paid off in the past two weeks when Samsom was voted the winner of numerous televised election debates.
"He was aggressive, domineering, very impatient, and a know-it-all, closed to other people's views. He's completely changed that. He sits there relaxed, stays to simple messages, gives personal examples," Sveder van Wijnbergen, professor at the University of Amsterdam, told Reuters.
"What's the truth? We don't really know whether the old closed ideological self was the real Diederik Samsom."
Viewers clearly were won over. In a poll on Thursday, 47 percent of those surveyed said they would pick Samsom as prime minister, against 42 percent for Rutte, and 11 percent said they had no preference.
"He looks like the perfect son-in-law," one academic said, while others likened Samsom to former Labour leader Wouter Bos because of his energetic manner and televisual appeal.
Samson's election video focuses both on his home life and vision for the country. In scenes that resonate with many Dutch families, he is filmed in the kitchen buttering bread for his children's breakfast before strapping his handicapped daughter into the car and taking his son to school by bike.
Prime Minister Rutte, by contrast, is single and keeps his private life private. Years ago, the media made fun of his admission that his mother still did his laundry. More recently he has admitted to enjoying the occasional glass of wine in the evening after work.
In the polls, Labour has shot ahead to nip at the Liberals' heels. A Maurice de Hond poll published on Friday showed Labour would win 32 seats in the 150-seat parliament, just one seat behind the Liberals with 33 seats. A survey by the same polling agency as recently as Aug. 19, showed Labour would win 16 seats, trailing far behind the Liberals with 32.
The gains have come at the expense of the hard-left Socialist Party which in the same period has dropped from the leading position with 36 seats to 23 seats on Friday.
De Hond said he was surprised by how well Samsom has done.
"A lot of people who were disappointed with Labour and went over to the Socialists went back to Labour because in the debates Roemer didn't do very well," he said, referring to the Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer.
But de Hond says Rutte also could have been more statesman-like in the debates, particularly at a time when the Dutch economy is feeling the impact of the wider euro zone crisis.
The election is attracting plenty of attention abroad because of the potential consequences for Europe and the handling of the debt crisis. As in other countries, the election has highlighted growing discontent among voters over Europe - in particular the need for belt-tightening at home and the high cost of bailing out weaker euro zone states.
Samsom came across as more worldly and more "prime ministerial" than Rutte in the debates.
"People want a statesman not a street fighter" at this time, De Hond says. "At a time of crisis you need to be able to cooperate not make enemies."