Voters go to polls on final day of virus-hit Dutch election News Staff

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Thousands of voting booths opened across the Netherlands early Wednesday on the final day of a general election overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, with caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte seeking a fourth term in office.

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.

“What are you still doing here?” anti-immigration opponent Geert Wilders asked Rutte in a final televised debate Tuesday night. “Why don’t you stand down and let somebody else take over? We can’t let the pyromaniac put out the fire in the Netherlands.”

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

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 and the centrist D66 party, led by the country’s minister for foreign trade and development co-operation Sigrid Kaag, who has positioned herself in the campaign as a viable alternative for Rutte as prime minister. The Netherlands has never had a woman 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 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.

Election officials had to cast their net wider in their hunt for suitable locations for polling stations so that they could offer enough room for social distancing between voters. Churches, concert halls and even Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have been pressed into service, while voters in cars and on bikes could also cast their ballot at a drive-thru polling centre in the Dutch capital.

Mike Corder, The Associated Press

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