Reuters International

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch economic recovery helped lower public debt for the first time in almost a decade last year, the government said on Wednesday, hailing the figures as a success of the conservative government's tight fiscal policy.

With a parliamentary election less than a year away, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's office said it had steered growth to a level not seen since the financial crisis seven years ago, when a deep recession forced a wave of bank bailouts that sent public sector debt soaring.

The budget deficit came in at 1.8 percent in 2015, the lowest level since 2008, while total public debt declined for the first time since 2006 to 65 percent of GDP.

Both figures were helped by unexpectedly strong domestic growth of 2 percent that compensated for 4 billion euros (3 billion pounds) less in income from gas revenue.

The upbeat figures are welcome news for the government, which has seen voters flock to populist parties of the left and the right as austerity bit into standards of living in one of Europe's richest countries.

"The annual report for 2015 shows the fruits of the tough measures taken over previous years," Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said in a statement to parliament.

His Labour Party, the junior coalition government partner, and Rutte's Liberals would lose more than half their seats in the 150-member parliament, from 79 to 31, pollster Maurice de Hond said on Sunday.

The main beneficiary has been the right-wing Freedom Party of anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders, which is set to more than double the seats it holds to become the largest party if polls translate into votes.

"The Dutch have not benefited from economic growth," Wilders said in a statement. "Billions have been spent on asylum seekers, Brussels and Africa," he added.

"The Netherlands is a great place for foreigners, but it makes minced meat of its own people," he said. "Fortunately elections are coming."

Elections are scheduled for March 15, 2017.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Alison Williams)

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