The two men vying to become the next Dutch prime minister played down the option of governing together in a televised debate on Monday night as each made a last-ditch attempt to win over undecided voters two days before a general election.
However, the tone of the debate between caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the Liberal Party leader, and Diederik Samsom of the moderate left opposition Labor Party, was less confrontational than during the preceding weeks.
The duo — who found common ground on issues from the euro to international affairs, but haggled over immigration, welfare and the housing market — are widely expected to be in coalition talks by the end of this week.
According to the latest opinion polls, the Liberals and Labor are in a dead heat after the leftist party made a surprising rebound in less than a month and would need just one other party to form a coalition government together.
The run-up to the election has been dominated by the eurozone crisis, and is considered a microcosm of the wider European debate over austerity versus stimulus as a solution.
In his election campaign, Rutte promised voters Greece would not get any more money, whereas Samsom, who wants the Netherlands to be given more time to meet its own EU budget targets, said Greece may have to be given more time if it is to have a chance of staying in the euro.
Samsom, Labor’s new leader, has emerged as the star of several televised debates over the past two weeks, propelling his party from fourth to joint first place.
To loud laughter from the audience, Rutte praised Samsom for winning so much ground saying he was now “the man in the polls who is breathing down my neck,” while Samsom said he “doesn’t know of another prime minister who faces problems so cheerfully — and that’s a good thing because he creates a lot of them.”
Some analysts predict Labor could even overtake the Liberals on election day.