On the final day of a general election dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, Dutch voters practicing social distancing cast their ballots at thousands of polling stations across the country.
Authorities searching for venues where people could vote safely amid rising infection rates forced school gyms, churches, museums, and concert halls into operation as voting locations. Cyclists and drivers in Amsterdam voted in favor of a drive-thru facility at a conference center.
The conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been leading polls by a broad margin for about a year, but the lead has been dwindling in recent weeks.
Rutte will be the first in line to lead talks to shape the next ruling coalition if his party receives the most votes when polls close at 9 p.m. (2000 GMT). He could become the country’s longest-serving prime minister if he succeeds.
Last year, his popularity skyrocketed as he led his country through a pandemic that claimed the lives of over 16,000 people and plunged the prosperous nation of just over 17 million into recession. However, his popularity has dwindled in recent weeks as public support for a months-long curfew has waned, and his cabinet has resigned in the aftermath of a controversy involving tax officials mistakenly identifying thousands of families as fraudsters.
“Of course, it is a very complicated matter that we will have to deal with moving forward,” Rutte said, adding that he accepted responsibility.
After cycling to a primary school in The Hague to vote, he emphasized the pandemic’s effect on the initiative.
“During these elections, the key question on the table is who will better lead this nation forward through the Corona crisis and then make a fresh start with this country,” he said.
Rutte, according to anti-immigration lawmaker Geert Wilders, is not that guy.
“I blame the government for not being prepared enough for the epidemic, not for the virus itself,” Wilders said. “But particularly for handing over our country, our values, our culture, and our money. And I believe the Dutch can take the lead.”
Other concerns on voters’ minds include the economy, housing shortages, health-care funding, and the Netherlands’ position in Europe.
But the pandemic was the overriding theme for Sandra Mulder, 58, who voted at the same polling station as Rutte.
“The big question is, how do we go forward?” What steps are required? “How can we ensure that the legacy of Corona is as light as possible for future generations?” she asked.
Rutte’s party is expected to gain between 34 and 36 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, according to a pre-election edition of the respected Peilingwijzer survey of different opinion polls.
Wilders’ party is expected to gain 18-20 seats, while the centrist D66 party, headed by Sigrid Kaag, the country’s minister for international trade and development cooperation, is in third position in the polls, close to Wilders. Kaag has put herself in the campaign as a realistic alternative to Rutte as Prime Minister, as the Netherlands has never had a female Prime Minister.
Voting started on Monday and Tuesday for people who are thought to be at high risk of contracting the virus. People over the age of 70 could also vote by mail.
After what the interior ministry termed “procedural errors” by voters mailing in ballots, the procedure for opening and counting postal votes had to be revised mid-election Tuesday.
The election features a record 37 parties, with up to 17 expected to win at least one seat in parliament’s 150-seat lower house, up from 13 in the previous election. Because of the splintering of the political system, coalition forming talks are likely to be difficult and time-consuming.