Netherlands

Dutch PM's poll lead shrinks as parliamentary election enters second day

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, of the ruling Freedom and Democracy Party on the campaign trail.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, of the ruling Freedom and Democracy Party on the campaign trail. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

According to opinion polls, the lead of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative party continued to shrink Tuesday, as voting continued for the second day in coronavirus-affected national elections. 

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Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) still has a lead of some 10 percentage points over its nearest rival, the anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV) led by anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders.

According to the Peilingwijzer survey, Rutte's party is set to win between 34 and 38 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament. Wilders' party is projected to win 17-21 seats. 

Rutte has led the last three Dutch ruling coalitions and has been in power for more than a decade. His popularity soared last year as he repeatedly appeared on television to solemnly explain the government's efforts to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.

"The Covid-19 pandemic may have offered the party of the Prime Minister  Rutte an election bonus," Bernard Steunenberg, professor of political science at Leiden University, told RFI.

However, the VVD's lead diminished somewhat in recent weeks as the election nears and public impatience with the country's tough lockdown increases.

Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren said Tuesday in a letter to parliament that she will tell municipalities that are responsible for counting votes to amend the way they deal with postal votes after reports emerged Monday of what her ministry called “procedural mistakes with postal votes”.

National broadcaster NOS reported that a number of municipalities said some postal votes could be invalid because the voters had not followed instructions correctly when mailing their ballot paper.

The broadcaster reported from the small municipality of Bernheze that 1,688 people voted by mail and 143 of those votes could be invalid. 

The increased use of postal voting for people aged 70 and over is among measures intended to make the election safe amid stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates in the Netherlands, a nation of just over 17 million where more than 16,000 people are confirmed to have died of Covid-19.

Tax scandal

As a result of the pandemic, campaigning has been "much milder" than in other years, says Steunenberg, while Covid-19 related issues overshadowed discussions on climate change, housing and the functioning of the government that was forced to step down in January after a scandal in which tax officials wrongly accused thousands of parents of fraud, plunging many families into debt by ordering them to repay childcare allowances. 

The EU, Brexit, and even "Nexit," the idea of the Netherlands leaving the EU, and previously a hot discussion topic, featured as "some oneliners" among extreme right-wing parties, Wilder's PVV and the newer Forum voor Democratie of Thierry Baudet. 

Longest-serving Prime Minister?

Voting has been spread out over three days, starting Monday, with the first two days intended to allow people who are considered more vulnerable to the virus to vote in polling stations that are not as busy as on normal election days.

The final day of voting is Wednesday and results are expected to begin rolling in after polling stations close at 9 p.m. (2000 GMT) and into Thursday.

The party that wins the most seats is first in line to lead talks to form the next ruling coalition. If that is Rutte, and he succeeds in cobbling together a new government, he could become the country's longest-serving prime minister.

(With AP)

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