Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte claimed an “overwhelming” victory in elections on Wednesday, vowing to use his fourth term in office to rebuild the country after the coronavirus pandemic.
Already one of Europe’s longest serving leaders after ten years in office, exit polls showed Rutte’s liberal party clearly winning the most seats in parliament after the socially distanced three-day vote.
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The left-leaning, pro-EU D66 party, which has challenged Rutte’s European policy as part of his current government, is set to surge into second place, making its leader, Sigrid Kaag, the most influential woman in present-day Dutch politics.
An Arabic-speaking former diplomat, Kaag is the rare example of a Dutch politician who used to be known better abroad than at home.
She served as United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon in 2015-2017, and before that headed a UN team overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. She entered politics in 2017 in her current job as the Netherlands’ Foreign Trade Minister.
Meanwhile, anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders lost ground to move into third, public broadcaster NOS predicted.
Populist leader Thierry Baudet’s party, which is considered on the far-right spectrum, did unexpectedly well on the back of COVID-sceptic votes in a country that recently suffered its worst riots in decades after the imposition of a coronavirus curfew.
“The voters of the Netherlands have given my party an overwhelming vote of confidence,” a smiling Rutte told reporters in parliament.
Rutte said that “not everything has gone well in the last 10 years”, including his resignation in January over a scandal in which people were racially profiled and then falsely accused of scamming child benefits.
“But of course the main issue also on the table for the next years is how to rebuild the country going forward after corona.”
He added that “I have the energy for another ten years.”
Ipsos had said before polls closed at 20:00 GMT that uncertainty caused by voting in the COVID-19 pandemic makes the margins of error larger than in other elections.
“A difference of two seats per party could happen more often. A difference of more than two seats cannot be completely ruled out,” Ipsos said in a statement.
The initial numbers from the poll indicated that Rutte will need to form a coalition with at least two other parties to get a majority of 76 seats in parliament.
The election is widely seen as a referendum on the government’s performance during the coronavirus crisis.
The Netherlands is one of the first major European Union economies to hold elections during the COVID-19 crisis, and voting was held over three days to prevent spreading of the virus, which has killed more than 16,000 people and infected 1.1 million in the nation of 17 million.
With a night-time curfew in place due to continuing high infection rates, and a ban on public gatherings during the day, the campaign was conducted mostly through television debates.
The Netherlands is currently under its most stringent health measures yet including the curfew and closure of bars and restaurants.
Millions of masked voters cast their ballots in pandemic conditions at museums, churches and bike-through polling stations on the third and final day of the elections, which have been dominated by the government’s response to the pandemic.
A limited number of voting centres had been open on Monday and Tuesday for the elderly and vulnerable, with voters also allowed out after the curfew, before polls opened for everyone on Wednesday.
By the end of the afternoon turnout was 81 percent, compared to 82 percent four years ago. However, in this election elderly voters were permitted to use mail-in ballots, and polls opened two days early to allow for social distancing.
Counting votes at municipalities is expected to last through the night.
Roughly 13 million voters were eligible to pick from dozens of parties contesting spots.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reporting from Amsterdam said that 37 parties were running, the largest number of parties competing in the elections since World War II.