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Dutch election: Will voters plump for change during a pandemic?

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By David Walsh
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A picture taken in The Hague, on February 18, 2021 shows an election board installed ahead of the parliamentary elections.
A picture taken in The Hague, on February 18, 2021 shows an election board installed ahead of the parliamentary elections.   -   Copyright  Remko de Waal/AFP
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The fallout from a political scandal, an ongoing global pandemic, an economic downturn, simmering civil unrest: any one of these challenges would make for a fraught election campaign.

But in the run-up to this week's national election (COVID-19 has seen voting spread out over three days, from March 15-17), political parties in the Netherlands were confronted with the reality of all four happening at once.

Unease at scandals and ongoing social issues aside, the Dutch electorate appears to be keenly aware of the need for stability during a time of crisis that is gripping the whole world, not least the Netherlands.

Some, though, are concerned with the country's direction and are railing against what they see as regressive measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.

In short, while the result is broadly expected to be an endorsement of continuity, some are seeing Wednesday's pandemic poll as a bellwether election for other major elections across Europe later this year.

Why did the government resign?

The resignation of a government just months before a scheduled election would normally raise eyebrows in normal times, much less during a national crisis.

In January, however, a scandal quickly engulfed the cabinet and Rutte's previous coalition partners, the Labour Party (PvdA), and precipitated the fall of the government.

The "kinderopvangtoeslagaffaire", or the child benefits scandal, has been something of an open sore for the Rutte government, and one which will ultimately cost taxpayers €500 million in compensation to those impacted by it.

Between 2013 and 2019, the tax authorities wrongly accused over 26,000 families of welfare fraud, demanding repayment of thousands of euros and plunging many into crippling debt.

Lodewijk Asscher, the leader of the PvdA and social affairs minister during the period in question, resigned on January 14 following the release of a damning parliamentary report.

Deeply divided on how to respond, Rutte's government resigned the following day and formed a caretaker administration.

Will Rutte return as prime minister?

Coming to power in 2010 as the lijsttrekker - the lead candidate - for the VVD party, Rutte became both the first liberal prime minister in nearly a century and also the second youngest holder of the office in the country's history.

During his decade-long tenure as premier, he has been at the head of the shortest-lived government in the postwar period as well as one of the only ones to last its full four-year term.

"Rutte is considered by an important part of the population as a nice person and good manager," Dr Jelle van Buuren, an associate professor of politics at the University of Leiden, told Euronews.

Seen as affable and modest, opting to cycle to work rather than be ferried around in a chauffeur-driven car, Rutte's image as a man of the people has been key to his success.

In Wednesday's election, he is hoping to project a sense of stability after nearly 11 years at the helm and secure a fourth term as prime minister. With the latest polls suggesting as many as one in three Dutch people will vote VVD, he remains in a dominant position as early voting begins on Monday.

"The lack of an appealing opponent, be it in terms of parties or party leaders, is also an important part of the explanation," said van Buuren. "Further, most of the main political parties have more or less supported its policies, inside the cabinet or as 'constructive opposition'. Attacking Rutte means attacking themselves".

Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Outgoing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is hoping for a fourth term in office.Peter Dejong/Associated Press

As with other figures around the world, Rutte has benefited from a pandemic bounce, being seen as a competent pair of hands during a national crisis. As such, the main opposition parties have struggled to clearly define themselves in contrast to the ruling parties.

"Other parties are voicing some critique regarding the handling of the crisis – just like the Dutch population is becoming more critical – however, as they supported the past year the corona policies of the government they have something of a credibility issue," said van Buuren.

This became even more glaring when some opposition parties joined Rutte's caretaker government in voting to impose a curfew - the first since the Second World War - to limit the spread of the virus.

While the majority of Dutch citizens supported the move, or at least understood the reasoning, the decision to impose such a restriction of movement inflamed growing dissatisfaction with the current political system.

The result was the spilling over of resentments onto the streets of towns and cities across the country in a spate of riots over three evenings in late January. While the situation has cooled somewhat, police quelled another anti-government protest on the eve of voting on Sunday.

"Although the population is becoming more critical, it has not led to a significant shift in party preferences," contends van Buuren.

Is a changing of the guard coming?

The only party that seems to making headway in criticising the government and tapping into social anxieties is the populist Freedom Party (PVV) led by contentious right-wing politician Geert Wilders.

"Only the Freedom Party... is attacking the VVD in the person of Rutte and accuses him of neglecting the economic and social damage due to the restrictive measures, the continuing curfew and other civil rights under pressure," said van Buuren.

A poll released on Tuesday predicted Rutte's VVD party could secure between 34 and 38 seats — a bump up from the 32 seats it currently has but lower than previous forecasts. Its coalition partners are projected to fare less well and lose some seats. Wilders' populist party is forecast to get between 17 and 21 seats, potentially adding to its current tally.

While support for the often controversial PVV has dramatically fluctuated over the last few years, recent polling suggests it is seeing a resurgence in the run-up to the election.

It's "still considered to be a no-go partner" for the VVD, notes van Buuren.

Rutte and Wilders had an unsuccessful stint in coalition during the former's first term which ended in a dissolution of the government and fresh elections in 2012. Rutte is unlikely to want to repeat the episode.

Before his government resigned, Rutte's VVD party was leading a coalition alongside junior partners Democrats 66 (D66), another liberal party, and the centre-right Christian Union (CU).

It's unclear whether the outgoing coalition will survive beyond the election, however.

"The current coalition parties... are suggesting that they won’t cooperate with each other anymore due to their conflicting ethical agendas," said van Buuren. "However, that can be more a call to action for their rank and files, than a serious obstacle.

"A coalition with several smaller leftish parties could be an alternative, but most of these parties remember how they were punished after dealing with the VVD," he added.

What makes this election different from previous ones?

Perhaps as a result of the static political situation and a reaction to the pandemic-related restrictions in place, a record 37 parties are contesting this year's national election.

In a country where the threshold for representation in the 150-seat lower house of parliament is set at just 0.67 per cent of the overall vote, a large number of parties vying for votes is not uncommon in the Netherlands.

If current opinion polls bear out, some 17 parties could win at least one seat, making the next parliament the most pluralistic in Dutch history.

While some, like Code Oranje (CO) whose platform includes introducing more forms of direct democracy, are likely to benefit from some of the simmering anti-government sentiment to make the threshold for the first time, none of these small parties is likely to trouble the mainstream parties, least of all the VVD.

"Observers state that the election campaign is paralysed or in a sort of sur place: no other issue than the corona crisis has been successfully launched in terms of agenda-setting," van Buuren told Euronews.

"Grand themes for the future, after the current crisis, are being tabled by some parties, but without making much of an impression – the future of housing, social security, labour market reforms, climate change and so on".

While some issues are gaining some traction in the dying hours of the campaign, notably a developing housing crisis, the election has become, in essence, very much a referendum on the short-term response to the global health crisis.

"Some observers speculate that this is something of an in-between election with only a short-lived cabinet, whatever its composition," said van Buuren. "First dealing with the crisis, and after that a renewed political fight in order to try to get rid of the hegemony of the VVD".

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