Mark Rutte Leads a Crowded Field in Dutch Vote

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte will likely hold onto his job after Wednesday’s election, with his Liberal VVD party comfortably ahead in opinion polls. The big question is how long will it take him to form another coalition among the whopping 37 parties contesting the ballot in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament.

The process of piecing together a government could take months, and the result will dictate the new administration’s priorities, from its pandemic recovery plans to its stance on European Union projects.

Here are the five main points to keep an eye on:

Will Mark Rutte win again?

Rutte has been buoyed by strong public support throughout the pandemic, giving the 54-year-old with a degree in Dutch history a good chance of leading his fourth cabinet since 2010 and becoming the longest-serving Dutch premier.

His Liberal VVD party is projected to win between 36 and 40 seats, up from 33 in 2017, according to the latest Peilingwijzer aggregate poll compiled by Tom Louwerse of the University of Leiden that combines polls conducted by I&O Research, Ipsos/EenVandaag and Kantar.

VVD’s polling numbers have come down in recent weeks, but Rutte remains a popular official in the pandemic-weary country. While a nighttime curfew triggered a few days of riots in many towns across the Netherlands and police used a water cannon to break up a protest on Sunday, a majority of Dutch people still back the measures.

Who are the other contenders?

Geert Wilders’ far-right populist Freedom Party is slated to win 18-20 seats, according to the poll, but both Rutte and Wopke Hoekstra, who leads the Christian Democrats, have ruled out forming a government with the anti-migration firebrand. Hoekstra’s Christian Democrats could garner 16-18 seats; the D66 group 14-16; the Green party 11-13; Labor 11-13; and the Socialists 9-11.

How has Covid impacted the election?

The outbreak has significantly altered the run-up to the ballot, with most parties resorting to online rallies and officials implementing measures to ensure a safe process. Voting will be spread over three days, starting on Monday. Vulnerable groups are allowed to vote in a limited number of voting stations on March 15 and 16, while people over 70 years can vote by mail.

The pandemic has also overshadowed all the other issues on the campaign trail, with topics normally at the forefront -- such as climate change, education and housing -- pushed to the side.

What happened to the populists?

While the polls show that Wilders may continue to lead the second-biggest faction in Parliament, it’s unlikely that he’ll end up in government since others are unwilling to work with him.

The Freedom Party head has been outspoken in his criticism of Rutte’s government for agreeing to a 1.8 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) EU recovery fund, arguing that it shifts money to poorer member states that should have been invested in the local healthcare system.

Meanwhile, Thierry Baudet, who leads the anti-EU Forum for Democracy, has plunged in the polls after in-fighting and local media reports on alleged racist comments made by party members. The turn of events comes just two years after Baudet won provincial elections, which made his party the largest in the Senate.

Baudet has been campaigning outdoors in public events, attacking the Covid-19 government lockdown measures, which he called “absurd” in a recent radio interview.

When can we expect a new governing coalition?

Since no party is close to winning a majority, teaming up with others to form a coalition is the name of the game in the Netherlands. And this could take quite some time as there are multiple routes to find a combination with 76 or more seats in the lower house.

Creating a cabinet has taken 94 days on average since 1946, according to research website Parlement.com. In 2017, it took a staggering 225 days to finalize Rutte’s third cabinet -- a record since World War II.

Until a new government is sworn in, Rutte will stay on as caretaker prime minister after his four-party cabinet collapsed on Jan. 15 over a childcare benefits scandal.

With the Covid-19 pandemic overshadowing the campaign and the vote, some hope it will accelerate the formation. Rutte himself said the current “crisis” means creating a new coalition should be a speedy process.

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