Dutch voters are heading to polling stations en masse for the third and final day of an election dominated by the coronavirus crisis, which is expected to return Prime Minister Mark Rutte to power for a fourth term.
The two most recent polls, conducted after voting began on Monday, showed Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, taking approximately 25 percent of the vote.
This would see the VVD win between 34 and 36 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
Rutte had topped opinion polls by a wide margin for about a year, but his lead has shrunk in recent weeks.
The Freedom Party, led by the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, far-right legislator Geert Wilders, may come second.
Like the centre-left D-66 party, a junior member of Rutte’s caretaker coalition headed by Sigrid Kaag, the Freedom Party is projected to secure 12-14 percent of votes – meaning it could win between 18 and 20 seats.
Roughly 13 million voters are eligible to pick from dozens of parties contesting spots.
The first exit poll is expected shortly after voting ends at 9pm (20:00 GMT).
As he cast his vote, Rutte ruled out the possibility of a coalition with Wilders’ Freedom Party.
“Yes, we ruled out the party of Geert Wilders because of what he said about Moroccans in the Netherlands, who are basically at this moment Dutch people, and for some of the things he has said about Islam and the Quran,” he told reporters. “And I ruled out the Forum for Democracy because of some of the things its leader has done in terms of anti-Semitism and racism.”
As Wilders arrived a polling station in The Hague, he said: “I don’t blame our government, of course, for the virus, but I do blame them for not being prepared enough. So people are indeed concerned about it, but they are also concerned about the normal routine life, you know, not only the economy, but also indeed Islam or immigration.
“This is an issue that has been on the agenda in the Netherlands for a very long time. And it’s not gone now because there is a pandemic.”
Vulnerable groups and the elderly, who were given expanded mail-in and proxy voting options, were encouraged to vote on the first two days, with the general public following on Wednesday.
If Rutte scoops the largest share of the vote, he will be first in line to lead talks to form the next ruling coalition. The negotiations are likely to be a tough and lengthy process.
Should Rutte succeed, he could become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
The 54-year-old first assumed office in October 2010. His popularity rose sharply last year as he steered his country through the pandemic, which has killed more than 16,000 people in the Netherlands and plunged the prosperous nation of just over 17 million into a recession.
But support for him declined as public backing for a months-long lockdown waned and his government resigned over a scandal involving tax officials wrongly labelling thousands of families – among them many ethnic minorities – as fraudsters, leaving his administration in caretaker mode.
On Sunday in The Hague, police broke up a demonstration by thousands who were protesting against the lockdown and a nighttime curfew, the imposition of which prompted several days of riots in January.
With the curfew and a ban on public gatherings in place while infection rates remained high, the pre-election campaign played out in television debates.
The final debate, held on Tuesday, saw Rutte and the heads of the seven other largest parties spar in a last-ditch bid to woo voters.
“What are you still doing here?” Wilders asked Rutte. “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.”
Rutte, for his part, said he was “trying to govern in difficult circumstances”.
“I’ve been taking responsibility for the past 10 years,” he said.