Virus-hit Dutch election enters final day; Rutte favored

International

A motorized voter casts her ballot at a drive through polling station in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Some polling stations opened across the Netherlands Monday and Tuesday in a general election that has been spread over three days to allow people to vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch voters practicing social distancing cast their ballots Wednesday at thousands of polling stations across the Netherlands on the final day of a general election overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

School gyms, churches, museums and concert halls were pressed into service as voting locations by authorities looking for venues where people could vote safely amid rising infection rates. In Amsterdam, cyclists and drivers voted in a drive-thru facility at a conference center.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy has been leading polls by a wide margin for about a year, but the lead has been shrinking in recent weeks.

If his party emerges as the largest when polls close at 9 p.m. (2000 GMT), Rutte will be first in line to lead talks to form the next ruling coalition. If he succeeds, he could become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

His popularity rose sharply last year as he steered his country through the pandemic that has killed more than 16,000 people in the Netherlands and plunged the prosperous nation of just over 17 million into recession. But that popularity has eroded in recent weeks as public support for a months-long lockdown declined and his government resigned over a scandal involving tax officials wrongly labeling thousands of families as fraudsters.

“Well, of course, that is a very difficult affair which we have to deal with going forward,” Rutte said, adding that he took responsibility for it.

He stressed the influence of the pandemic on the campaign, after cycling to a primary school in The Hague to cast his vote.

“The main question during these elections on the table is who best can lead this country forward through the crisis of corona and then make a new start with this country,” he said.

Anti-immigration lawmaker Geert Wilders insists Rutte is not that man.

“I don’t blame government for the virus, I blame them for not being prepared enough for that,” Wilders said. “But especially for giving our country away, giving out values away, giving our culture away, giving our money away. And I believe that Dutch should go first.”

Voters also have other issues on their minds, from the climate to housing shortages, health care funding and the Netherlands’ place in Europe.

But for Sandra Mulder, 58, the pandemic was the dominant theme as she voted at the same polling station as Rutte.

“It is mainly, how do we move on? What steps are necessary? How do we ensure that our future generations are burdened as little as possible with the legacy of corona?” she said.

A preelection version of the respected Peilingwijzer survey of different opinion polls predicted forecast Rutte’s party will win between 34 and 36 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.

Wilders’ party is tipped to win 18-20 seats while the centrist D66 party, led by the country’s minister for foreign trade and development cooperation Sigrid Kaag, is close to Wilders in third place in the polls. The Netherlands has never had a woman as prime minister and Kaag has positioned herself in the campaign as a viable alternative for Rutte as prime minister.

Voting began Monday and Tuesday ostensibly for people considered to be in high risk groups for the virus. People aged over 70 also had the option of mail-in voting.

The procedure for opening and counting postal votes had to be changed mid-election Tuesday after what the interior ministry called “procedural mistakes” by voters mailing in their ballots.

A record 37 parties are taking part in the election, with up to 17 forecast to garner enough votes to win at least one seat in parliament’s 150-seat lower house, up from 13 at the last election. That splintering of the political landscape is likely to make coalition formation negotiations a tough and lengthy process.

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