Last day of Dutch Covid-dominated election

The Hague (AFP) –


Dutch voters are to cast their ballots at bike-through polling stations and museums Wednesday on the final day of a coronavirus-dominated election that could return Prime Minister Mark Rutte to power.

Europe's first Covid election of 2021 has taken place over three days, with the elderly and at-risk voting at selected locations on Monday and Tuesday before the polls open for everyone else on Wednesday.

People have also been allowed out past a 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) nationwide curfew to ensure they can vote -- the controversial health restriction in January sparked the Netherlands' worst riots for decades.

The election is set to be a verdict on Rutte's handling of the pandemic, with opinion polls showing his liberal VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) on course to lead a fourth successive coalition, after already spending a decade in office.

But with a near-record 37 parties in the mix, and months of coalition talks looming in the fractured Dutch parliamentary scene, the shape of any future government is still up in the air.

"This election, of course, it's very much Covid," political analyst Andre Krouwel told AFP.

Rutte would get a "'corona bonus' because he was the spokesman during the pandemic" during his frequent press conferences, but "there's a lot of doubt still among voters", Krouwel said.

- 'Teflon' premier -

Mask-wearing citizens will be able to vote in a host of locations ranging from the famed Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to dozens of railway stations around the country.

The elections have been adapted for the coronavirus pandemic, with early voting for vulnerable people, and over-70s allowed to cast their ballots by post.

The Netherlands has recorded more than 1.1 million coronavirus infections and more than 16,000 deaths, and is currently under its most stringent health measures since the first restrictions started almost exactly a year ago.

Protests against Rutte in The Hague on Sunday ended with police using water cannon against demonstrators.

Yet the bike-riding, bespectacled Rutte, 54, has generally cultivated his image as a safe pair of hands during the pandemic.

Dubbed the "Teflon" premier for emerging unscathed from crises, Rutte recently shrugged off the fact that he had to resign in January over a scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of scamming childcare.

He has since continued in a caretaker role.

Victory on Wednesday would confirm him as one of Europe's longest-serving leaders after Germany's Angela Merkel and Hungary's Viktor Orban -- even if his hawkish stance on spending has seen other EU chiefs dub him "Mr No."

- Anti-lockdown -

Polls show Rutte's VVD party with around 25 percent of the vote, which would give them slightly more than their current 32 of the 150 seats in parliament.

His closest rival, the anti-Islam PVV (Freedom Party) of Geert Wilders, is on around 13 percent, making it likely to remain the second-biggest party in parliament.

Rutte's coalition partners, the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) of finance minister Wopke Hoekstra, and centre-left D66, are vying for third place, meaning they could likely return to government too.

But with a large group of others, including the Greens (GroenLinks), not far behind, and the Labour party hoping for a return to favour, the shape of any eventual coalition remains uncertain.

The populist Forum for Democracy of Thierry Baudet is also hoping for a boost from its stridently anti-lockdown, vaccine-sceptic stance.

After the last elections in 2017, coalition talks took seven months, and analysts say negotiations this time are also likely to be tough.

Polls close at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) with exit polls expected soon afterwards.