Dutch Vote for a New Government as a Coronavirus Third Wave Looms

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party is expected to win an election that analysts hope will help them gauge the staying power of the populism that has swept Europe in recent years.

By Thomas Erdbrink

LEIDEN, the Netherlands — Voters in the Netherlands cast their ballots on Wednesday in one of the first major European elections to take place during the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the continent in successive waves.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal-right Party for Freedom and Democracy had been leading in the polls up to the vote Wednesday, despite a scandal over a benefits crackdown targeting mainly poor families that brought down his government in January, setting him on course for a fourth term.

Other front-runners to lead a new government are Geert Wilders, a populist who has opposed immigration from Muslim countries and called for a ban of the Quran, with his Party for Freedom, and Sigrid Kaag, a former United Nations special envoy for Syria, who is leading D66, a liberal-democratic party. Several special-interest parties, supporting Europe, equal rights and other specific agendas are expected to get seats for the first time.

The election is being closely watched for insights into the staying power of the wave of populism that has swept the continent in the past two decades and brought politicians like Mr. Wilders to prominence. Another right-wing party, the Forum voor Democratie, led by Thierry Baudet, was doing well in the polls last summer, before the election was called, but infighting led to some prominent politicians leaving and starting their own party.

“In the past two decades populist parties, at maximum, have gotten a combined result of 18.7 percent of the votes during Dutch national elections,” said Tom-Jan Meeus, a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. He said he was using that as a yardstick to measure the success of the parties in the election Wednesday, noting that they could suffer if turnout was low.

The elections are one of the first to take place in Europe since the coronavirus broke out last spring, sparking repeated lockdowns across the continent as the death toll grew. Portugal voted in presidential elections in January, re-electing the center-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for a second term in office.

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