Dutch vote in election dominated by COVID-19

Image source: USNews.com

Three days of voting begins in the Netherlands on Monday in a parliamentary election seen as a referendum on the Dutch government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, is widely expected to gain enough support to secure a fourth term.

Four polls released this week showed Rutte’s conservative VVD taking 21-26% of the vote, compared with 11-16% for its closest rival, Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party, which leads the parliamentary opposition.

With a ban on public gatherings, the election campaign focused on a series of televised debates in which Rutte maintained his image as a steady hand during a time of crisis.

But coronavirus infections in the Netherlands are rising at the fastest pace in months, and the National Institute for Health (RIVM) has advised against any swift easing out of lockdown, saying that hospitals could still be overwhelmed in a third wave of the pandemic driven by more contagious variants.

Image source: Voice of America

On Sunday, police broke up thousands of demonstrators gathered in The Hague to protest against the lockdown and curfew, the imposition of which prompted several days of riots in January.

Roughly 13 million voters are eligible to pick from dozens of parties contesting spots in the 150-seat parliament. Voting booths open at 0630 GMT and the first exit poll is expected when they close at 2000 GMT on Wednesday.

Major parties including Labour, the Green-Left, the pro-education Democrats-66 are vying with the centre-right Christian Democrats for third place. Two or three of these will likely join a new VVD-led coalition.

With a ban on gatherings of more than two people, restaurants and bars shut and the first night-time curfew since World War Two, voting has been spread over three days to help ensure social distancing at polling stations.

An exception on the 9 p.m. curfew will be made for people out casting their ballots.

Rutte, 54, has been Dutch prime minister since 2010.

Although the Netherlands slipped up in its response to COVID-19, being last in the E.U. to start vaccinating and flip-flopping over face masks, hospitals never ran out of beds through two COVID-19 infection peaks.

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky – Reuters

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