AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch citizens cast the final votes on Wednesday in a national election fought during the coronavirus pandemic, with conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte expected to win a fourth term in office.
The election is widely seen as a referendum on the government’s performance during the crisis, in which more than 16,000 people have died of COVID-related illnesses and police clashed with protesters opposed to strict lockdown measures.
With a night-time curfew in place due to continuing high infection rates, and a ban on public gatherings during the day, the campaign was conducted mostly through television debates.
By the end of the afternoon turnout was 57%, compared to 55% four years ago. However, in this election elderly voters were permitted to use mail-in ballots, and polls opened two days early to allow for social distancing.
Rutte’s main rivals criticized the Netherlands’ slow vaccine roll-out, but struggled to distinguish themselves as they support government policy.
“I’ve been taking responsibility for the past 10 years,” Rutte, 54, one of Europe’s longest-serving politicians who has been in office since 2010, said at a final debate on Tuesday night. “I’m trying to govern, in difficult circumstances.”
Roughly 13 million voters were eligible to choose from dozens of parties contesting spots in the 150-seat parliament. The first exit poll was expected shortly after voting ends at 2000 GMT on Wednesday.