Dutch prime minister in line for 4th term after victory for ‘Center-Right’

LEIDEN, The Netherlands – Mark Rutte, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, saw on Wednesday that his Party for Freedom and Democracy won big in the Dutch election and elected him for a fourth term as Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

“We must bring this country back to where it needs to be, as one of the best performing countries in the world,” he said. Rutte said in a televised victory speech. “I have enough energy for another ten years.”

Mr. Rutte, who describes his party as ‘center-right’, must now form a coalition with other parties to gain a majority in parliament. D66, a Liberal Democratic party led by former United Nations diplomat Sigrid Kaag, came in second. Mr. Rutte and me. Kaag will hold talks on forming a new government.

Rutte’s party won three seats compared to similar elections in 2017, according to exit polls published by public broadcaster NOS on Wednesday.

Mr. Rutte and his cabinet resigned in January over a scandal targeted by the tax authorities at people, mostly poor, who made administrative mistakes in their requests for child benefits. Many were financially devastated after being forced to repay benefits to which they were entitled.

However, the scandal did not play an important role during the campaign, nor did the shaky policies of Mr. Routes for handling the coronavirus. He and his cabinet remained in a caretaker role until the election to manage the pandemic response.

“It was a corona election and most of those in power were rewarded,” said Tom-Jan Meeus, a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. He said the scattered victories by several right-wing parties together did not exceed their usual threshold of about 18 percent.

“These elections are a victory for parties in the political middle, no change for the radical right and a loss for left,” he added.

Mr Meeus said he did not expect major shifts in policy, “but there will be more pressure on Mark Rutte to have more pro-European policies, from the parties he has to govern with.”

Ms Kaag, a career diplomat who includes several languages, including Arabic, is a strong supporter of the European Union, as is her party. She serves in the outgoing cabinet as Minister of International Trade and Development.

Last May, Mr. Rutte led a group of nations that refused to pay blank checks to southern European countries to support their economies during the pandemic. He will now be forced to compromise on such views if he enters into a coalition with D66.

Voters in the Netherlands cast their ballots in one of the first major European elections to take place during the coronavirus pandemic that swept the country in successive waves.

Neighboring Germany is also entering a crowded election season, with national and state votes coming in a year that will end Angela Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship.

Geert Wilders, a populist who opposed immigration from Muslim countries and called for a ban on the Koran, saw his Party for Freedom lose two seats, although it remains the third largest.

Another right-wing party, the Forum for Democracy, led by Thierry Baudet, at the height of its popularity, it appears to be poised to win 26 seats, according to opinion polls conducted in 2019, but public infighting has led some prominent politicians to leave and start their own party. Baudet’s party won six new seats for a total of eight, according to exit polls late Wednesday.

The election is one of the first to take place in Europe since the coronavirus broke out last year, causing repeated closures across the continent as the death toll rose. Portugal voted in the presidential election in January and elected center-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for a second term.

The pandemic changed the usual dynamics of organizing elections in the Netherlands, but it apparently did not have an effect on Wednesday. Long queues of socially-distant voters stood waiting in the historic center of Leiden, a university town near The Hague, in the early afternoon. At many polling stations, voters were allowed to take home the red pencils they used to vote, a measure to prevent the virus from spreading.

“There is no way anyone can get corona with all these measures,” said Niels Romijn, a government official, as he entered a public library to vote. “Everyone was super chill,” he said, happily showing off his free red pencil. “Civil duty,” he said laughing.

Polling stations have been open nationwide since Monday to avoid vulnerable voters crowds. Voters over the age of 70 were encouraged to vote by mail. And campaigns took place mainly on television, making it difficult for voters to confront politicians spontaneously, as is typical in the Netherlands.

Coronavirus cases are rising again in the Netherlands, prompting authorities to warn of a third wave. Last year, the government of Mr. Takes taken until November to set up the tests, and the vaccination process is now progressing slowly.

However, local issues, and not the government’s handling of the coronavirus, dominated the election campaign.

Broader policies pursued by Mr. Rutte, who has been in power since 2010, was also a focus on the campaign, while opponents questioned the government’s recurring cuts in health care, policing and other essential services.

Mr. Rutte has ruled out any form of collaboration with Wilders’ Freedom Party, which means he will likely have to liaise with other parties. Wednesday’s vote brings a record 17 parties to the Dutch parliament with 150 seats.

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