The Hague, Netherlands – For the first time since a controversial curfew was implemented in the Netherlands on January 23, the much-discussed lockdown measure is partially suspended to allow people to vote in the general election this week.
These are the first parliamentary elections in Western Europe since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the health crisis has dominated the campaign.
There are other firsts as well, given the nature of the pandemic.
For the first time since 1894, elections are spread over three days to allow at-risk groups to vote before the main election date, March 17 – this Wednesday.
Never before have voters aged 70 and over been allowed to vote by mail. In addition, voters can cast three proxy votes instead of two.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, has a significant lead in the polls.
If the VVD wins, it is likely that Rutte will serve a fourth term, making him one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Dutch history.
“Appreciation for Rutte has increased tremendously during this pandemic,” Ipsos pollster Sjoerd van Heck told Al Jazeera. “We have seen a big shift in electoral seats towards the VVD. Voters believed he was running the country well through this crisis.
But pressure on the government has increased in the past two months amid lingering tensions around coronavirus measures and a vaccination program that has taken longer than most European countries to take off.
On January 15, the government collapsed following a child benefit scandal in which thousands of parents – including many ethnic minorities – were falsely accused of fraud by the tax authorities.
The week after the cabinet resigned, the interim government voted in favor of the now infamous curfew that went into effect on January 23. The nights that followed were filled with riots and protests. Shops have been looted, police have been attacked and a coronavirus testing center has been set ablaze.
Yet Rutte’s popularity was still high.
“Strangely enough, the child benefit scandal and the riots have not had a significant effect on the polls,” Van Heck said. “People are more worried about how to overcome this crisis. Other matters have been put on the back burner. “
The Dutch political landscape is fragmented. A post-war record of 37 parties participating in these elections. In 2017, 28 parties were registered on the ballot.
The VVD currently has 32 seats; polls put the results at just under 40 seats. But the party is still far from the 76 seats required for a majority in the House of Representatives.
Currently in second place is the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, closely followed by no less than five other political parties.
The right-wing populist Forum voor Democratie (FvD), led by Thierry Baudet, is a relatively new player in the political game. The party took part in the 2017 election for the first time and won two seats – a number that is expected to double.
The FvD is known to oppose all government COVID-19 measures.
“Baudet made explicit racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic statements,” said Léonie de Jonge, assistant professor in European politics and society at the University of Groningen. “He is copying a Trump playbook during his campaign, already saying we should be vigilant about fraudulent ballots. He is a new far-right challenger for Geert Wilders. “
The Dutch political system is a system of equal representation. The Netherlands does not have an official electoral threshold, which means any party that manages to get 0.67% could get a seat in the House of Representatives.
“It helps explain why the political landscape is so fragmented,” De Jonge said.
“There are no longer big parties, only medium and small sized parties. They all cater to slightly different electorates. This is what makes it difficult for them to form a bloc against Rutte.
The similarities between these parties make it difficult for the 13.1 million potential voters to make a decision. Since almost all of the attention is focused on the pandemic, some have found it difficult to understand what a party represents.
Online election guides are widely used in the Netherlands and have become even more popular in these elections. The most well-known is the Stemwijzer website.
“We can see that the Stemwijzer has been used 6.2 million times,” said Anita de Jong, acting deputy director of ProDemos, the organization behind the election guide. “And we know that in the days leading up to the election, that number is increasing by about a million a day.”
Due to the pandemic, most parties have avoided traditional campaigning methods.
“Parties are looking for alternative ways to reach citizens and try to be active on as many social media platforms as possible,” Sanne Kruikemeier, associate professor of political communication and journalism at the University of Paris, told Al Jazeera. ‘Amsterdam. “It’s an election that is played mainly through the media.”
But despite the lockdown, FvD has decided to actively campaign in person.
“The election cannot come soon enough for Rutte,” said De Jonge, of the University of Groningen. “Each longer day means additional votes for Baudet. He could persuade people to vote for him not for ideological reasons, but because people are fed up with coronavirus measures. ”
Rutte has already indicated that he would rule out a coalition with Wilders’ PVV and Baudet’s FvD – meaning smaller parties could join the ruling coalition.
“It seems the parties have accepted Rutte to win this election and are afraid to attack him,” De Jonge said. “They are positioning themselves for coalition talks. Everyone hopes they can find their way. “
The turnout will decide the final outcome. But that too may be different from other elections due to coronavirus fears.
“Seniors are a little more loyal to the vote, but their turnout may be lower this year,” pollster Van Heck said. “That would mean that youth votes count higher this year.”
Polling stations will close at 9 p.m. local time on Wednesday. A first exit survey will be available immediately after.