First day of elections in the Netherlands, against the backdrop of coronavirus

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The Hague | The Netherlands began three days of parliamentary elections on Monday, seen as a test of the current government’s handling of the epidemic, and which should see Prime Minister Mark Rutte win a new term.

Polling stations across the country opened at 7:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m. GMT) on Monday, hours adapted this year due to COVID-19. People at risk are called to vote on Monday and Tuesday, with the main polling day taking place on Wednesday.

A small number of people were seen going to vote at a polling station in The Hague a few minutes after it opened, near the Madurodam miniature park, an AFP journalist noted.

The country remains under strict anti-COVID restrictions, including a curfew.

The introduction of this controversial measure at the end of January led to the worst riots in the Netherlands in 40 years. And again on the eve of the first day of voting, police used water cannons in The Hague to disperse a new anti-government demonstration.

Liberal-Conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in power since 2010, however, seems on the way to being re-elected for a fourth term, as the coronavirus has distracted attention from other issues such as immigration, which had dominated the previous elections.

Opinion polls show Mr. Rutte’s Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) as the clear winner, with around 25% of the vote, far ahead of the 13% of its main competitor, the Party for Freedom (PVV ) of anti-Islam deputy Geert Wilders.

“It seems that right-wing voters really like the VVD and Rutte,” André Krouwel, professor of political science at the Free University of Amsterdam, told AFP.

For the political scientist, Mark Rutte “benefits not only from the” Prime Minister bonus “”, that is to say from the fact of already being in this post, “but also the” corona bonus “, because he was the bearer. speech during the pandemic ”.

Prime Minister “Teflon”

Mark Rutte announced last week that exceptions to the curfew, in effect from 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., would apply during elections to allow voters to vote “without hindrance.”

Dutch authorities have urged older people and those vulnerable to the coronavirus to go to the polls early, with the majority of the rest of the population, including party leaders, having to wait until Wednesday to vote.

The conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and Christian Union (CU) parties, both members of the current coalition, are vying for third place in the polls, meaning they could also return to the polls. government.

But with many other candidates not far behind, including the environmentalist party GroenLinks, it remains uncertain what form a new governing coalition might take. Talks to create one after the last election in 2017 had lasted seven months.

This year, the management of the COVID-19 epidemic emerges as the key issue, largely dominating the debate. The Dutch authorities had first adopted much more lax measures than their neighbors, and had experienced a late start to their vaccination campaign, before tightening the screws in recent months.

Nicknamed the Prime Minister “Teflon” for his ability to emerge unscathed from political crises, Mark Rutte was nevertheless forced to resign in January after thousands of parents were wrongly accused of fraud in family allowances.

“Lots of scandals”

The VVD “has been in government for some time and I think it has faced a lot of scandals, which they might not have survived if the coronavirus was not there”, believes Floris van Dedem, a 22 year old student living in The Hague. “I don’t think they could have had so many seats” without the health crisis, he told AFP.

However, other issues, such as education and the climate, were also raised during the election campaign.

“In the end, I believe that (the coronavirus) will not influence my choice because I think there are other subjects which are also important”, explains to AFP Bridget ten Cate, 40, who works at the Ministry of Finance.

The Dutch elections will be watched closely across the rest of the EU, as it is one of the first major tests of a government-27’s pandemic response this year.

Mark Rutte is the third longest-serving European leader, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.