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Mark Rutte favoured as virus-hit Dutch election reaches final day

The caretaker prime minister has seen his lead shrink in recent weeks.

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Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party votes in the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, March 17, 2021. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool via AP)

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party votes in the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, March 17, 2021. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool via AP)

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party votes in the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands, March 17, 2021. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool via AP)

Voters practising social distancing are casting their ballots 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 by authorities looking for polling booths 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.

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Voters queue to cast their ballots at performing arts theater de Roode Bioscoop in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Polling stations opened across the Netherlands early 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)

Voters queue to cast their ballots at performing arts theater de Roode Bioscoop in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Polling stations opened across the Netherlands early 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)

Voters queue to cast their ballots at performing arts theater de Roode Bioscoop in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Polling stations opened across the Netherlands early 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)

If his party emerges as the largest when polls close, he 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 labelling thousands of families as fraudsters.

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.

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

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Geert Wilders casts his vote in The Hague (Patrick Post/AP)

Geert Wilders casts his vote in The Hague (Patrick Post/AP)

Geert Wilders casts his vote in The Hague (Patrick Post/AP)

“I don’t blame government for the virus, I blame them for not being prepared enough for that,” Mr 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.”

A pre-election survey of opinion polls predicted Mr Rutte’s party would win between 34 and 36 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.

Mr 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 Mr Wilders in third place in the polls.

The Netherlands has never had a woman as prime minister and Ms Kaag has positioned herself in the campaign as a viable alternative to Mr Rutte as prime minister.

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

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

A record 37 parties are taking part in the election, with up to 17 forecast to win enough votes to win at least one seat in the lower house, up from 13 at the last election.

That splintering of the political landscape is likely to make coalition negotiations a tough process.


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