Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrives at an European Union summit in Brussels December 8, 2011. European Union leaders will discuss proposals for tighter euro zone integration on December 8-9, with the aim of bringing deficits and debt much more strictly into check, a move that may give the European Central Bank room to step up purchases of sovereign bonds and reassure financial markets. REUTERS/Thierry Roge (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS)

The Hague - The chances for the Dutch Socialists in next week's elections appear to be fading, as the Labour Party (PvdA) made a late surge to draw almost level with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's free-market liberal VVD party.

Polls indicate that the main contest will not be between Emile Roemer's Socialist Party (SP) and the VVD, as previously thought.

Instead, there is a growing possibility of a coalition centred on the VVD and the PvdA, with the support of one of the minor parties, as voters and analysts alike hope that a working coalition will emerge soon after polling day on Wednesday.

A broad coalition could mean an end to political polarization and “a return to the centre,” employers' representative Bernard Wientjes said.

Until recently, Socialist leader Roemer was still confidently distributing tomato ice cream at an election rally.

The ripe tomato is the symbol of a party that has come a long way from its Maoist beginnings to being a serious candidate for a key role in the next government.

“We are not against Europe, but we can't allow our country to be forced to save itself into the ground,” Roemer said, highlighting a key theme of the election, which has seen support for the European Union on the wane.

The SP election platform expresses scepticism over what it sees as the European Union's “neo-liberal” policies, dominated by the business lobby and its “undermining of the welfare state.”

The PvdA led by Diederik Samsom has caught up with the SP after lagging behind in recent months. The 41-year-old nuclear physicist is now confident of winning the elections.

“The PvdA is regaining many of its former supporters who had deserted to the SP,” opinion poll expert Maurice de Hondt says. He attributes the recent rise in the party's numbers to strong performances by Samson in televised debates.

The most important election issues are the financial crisis in the eurozone, of which the Netherlands is a member, and budget cuts of about 20 billion euros (25 billion dollars).

Samsom managed to present himself to viewers as a reasonable alternative between the extremes of the left and the right, as post-debate polling showed.

While his opponents made clear that giving further aid to Greece was out of the question, Samsom took a more conciliatory line. “It may be necessary to give the Greeks more time to restructure their economy,” he said.

The PvdA is also profiting from a crisis in the ranks of the Christian Democrats (CDA) - long a major force in Dutch politics and the junior partner in the current government, but now likely to be reduced to a small minority party.

CDA supporters have apparently not forgiven their party for entering into a deal following the 2010 elections involving tacit support from right-wing populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom.

Rutte's VVD appears to be on course to remain the largest party in the 150-seat lower house, but he will have to look for another partner.

An alliance with the SP is unlikely on the basis of the parties' respective political standpoints. Rutte is unlikely to want a rerun of the arrangement with Wilders, who withdrew his “toleration” of the coalition in April, forcing the elections.

The current arithmetic suggests a three-way coalition of Rutte's VVD, Samsom's PvdA and the minority left-liberals of D66. A September 5 poll gave the VVD 34 seats, with the PvdA on 32 and D66 on 13, providing a reasonably comfortable working majority.

Samsom has not ruled out the possibility. He has also kept open the option of a left-left coalition with the SP, which was on 22

seats according to the poll, with Wilders just behind on 20. - Sapa-dpa