UTRECHT, Netherlands — Dutch Labour leader Diederik Samsom handed out roses and promised a new Europe as he campaigned Saturday to achieve what seemed impossible just weeks ago: become the Netherlands' next prime minister.
"The Netherlands needs a party that understands that it's only with a properly functioning Europe that the Netherlands can function, only with a Europe that grows can the Netherlands have growth," Samsom told voters on the canal-lined streets of Utrecht ahead of Wednesday's election.
Red-clad activists from Samsom's centre-left Labour (PvdA) party and shoppers applauded the call to redefine the European Union's role.
Samsom, a veteran Greenpeace activist, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the polls that has surprised voters and analysts in the eurozone's fifth largest economy.
With his broad grin and shaved head and wearing a shirt without a tie, Samsom tells his followers to believe in "the strength of the Netherlands."
"We have to build the future, we have to build a more social Netherlands, it's still possible!" said the politician dubbed the "comeback-kid" of Dutch politics.
While the Dutch economy grew by 0.2 percent in the second quarter compared to the first, the country's Central Statistics Bureau warned that "the Netherlands still finds itself in a period of poor economic conditions."
Samsom, 41, only took over the Labour party in March, a month before the ruling coalition led by the Liberal VVD collapsed.
He has risen steadily in the polls over the last two weeks and is now seriously being seen as a contender for the prime minister's post.
He has positioned his leftist party towards the centre to battle the sovereign debt crisis shaking the eurozone, arguing for targetted stimulus measures to kick-start growth.
"Just making savings will not solve the crisis and investing without thinking will only make it worse," Samsom said in Utrecht.
Instead, he offered a middle-of-the road alternative to austerity-driven VDD leader and current Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the one hand, and the hard-left Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer on the other.
Latest opinion polls suggest Samsom's PvdA will win 32 seats in the 150-seat lower house, and the VDD 33. Whichever party wins most votes gets the prime minister's job and the right to form a ruling coalition.
Many voters remain undecided and a poll on Thursday had 47 percent of voters who wanted Samsom as prime minister, compared to just 42 percent for Rutte.
Samsom's party is opposed to harsh austerity measures and plans to balance the budget by 2017, without paying too much attention to the eurozone's 3.0-percent deficit rule.
The party wants stimulus investments, while also taxing the financial sector and the richest incomes, promises similar to those made by French Socialist President Francois Hollande in his campaign earlier this year.
Roemer's Socialists, who are opposed to further EU integration, enjoyed a spike in popularity two weeks ago. Since then however, they have dropped back and are predicted to win 15 seats in Wednesday's vote, the fifth Dutch elections in 10 years.
The bounce in the polls for the Socialists was largely a casualty of strong performances in recent televised debates by Samsom, who is known as "The Quiz King", having in the past won several television quiz shows.
A feisty debater, Samsom does not shy from confrontation.
He became an MP in 2003 having been a Greenpeace activist for six years after which he ran a green energy company.
"So much the better if he's been a Greenpeace activist, he fights for what he believes in," young voter Jasmijn, 21, told AFP in Utrecht, clutching one of the party's red roses after listened to his speech.
Although Samsom was arrested at least 10 times during his work as an environmental activist, he does not have a criminal record.
Former colleagues say that Samsom, who studied nuclear physics after being shocked by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as a child, entered politics to "make the world a better place."
"I learned that when you want to change something, really change something, you have to work through democracy: real change can only come from politics," he said during a televised debate earlier this month.
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