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Monday November 29th, 2021 12:37AM

Virus-hit Dutch election enters final day; Rutte favored

By The Associated Press
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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch voters cast their ballots Wednesday, practicing strict social distancing, at thousands of polling stations across the Netherlands on the final day of a general election overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

School gyms, churches, museums, concert halls and at least one windmill were pressed into service as voting centers by authorities looking for venues where people could vote safely amid rising infection rates. In Amsterdam, cyclists and drivers voted in a drive-thru facility at a conference center.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy has been leading polls by a wide margin for about a year, but the lead has been shrinking in recent weeks.

If his party emerges as the strongest when polls close at 9 p.m. (2000 GMT), Rutte will be first in line to lead talks to form the next ruling coalition. If he succeeds, he could become the country's longest-serving prime minister.

His popularity rose sharply last year as he steered his country through the pandemic that has killed more than 16,000 people in the Netherlands and plunged the prosperous nation of just over 17 million into recession. But that popularity has eroded in recent weeks as public support for a months-long lockdown declined and his government resigned over a scandal involving tax officials wrongly labeling thousands of families as fraudsters.

“Well, of course, that is a very difficult affair which we have to deal with going forward," Rutte said, adding that he took responsibility for it.

He stressed the pandemic as a campaign theme, after cycling to a primary school in The Hague to cast his vote.

“The main question during these elections on the table is who best can lead this country forward through the crisis of corona and then make a new start with this country,” he said.

Anti-immigration lawmaker Geert Wilders insists Rutte is not that man.

“I don’t blame government for the virus, I blame them for not being prepared enough for that," Wilders said. "But especially for giving our country away, giving out values away, giving our culture away, giving our money away. And I believe that Dutch should go first.”

Voters also have other issues on their minds, from the climate to housing shortages, health care funding and the Netherlands' place in Europe.

But for Sandra Mulder, 58, the pandemic was the dominant theme as she voted at the same polling station as Rutte.

“It is mainly, how do we move on? What steps are necessary? How do we ensure that our future generations are burdened as little as possible with the legacy of corona?” she said.

A pre-election version of the respected Peilingwijzer survey of different opinion polls predicted forecast Rutte’s party will win between 34 and 36 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.

Wilders’ party is tipped to win 18-20 seats while the centrist D66 party, led by the country's minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, is polling close to Wilders in third place. The Netherlands has never had a woman as prime minister and Kaag has positioned herself in the campaign as a viable alternative to Rutte.

Voting began Monday and Tuesday, ostensibly for people considered to be in high risk groups for the virus. People aged over 70 also had the option of mail-in voting.

The procedure for opening and counting postal votes had to be changed mid-election Tuesday after what the interior ministry called “procedural mistakes” by voters mailing in their ballots.

A record 37 parties are taking part in the election, with up to 17 forecast to garner enough votes to win at least one seat in parliament, up from 13 at the last election. That splintering of the political landscape is likely to make coalition formation negotiations a tough and lengthy process.

In Amsterdam, Camiel Kerstin pedaled to register his vote at the bicycle drive-thru polling station, joining a queue of waiting riders.

“I think voting in general is safe in this way because there’s a lot of space between everyone,” Kerstin said. "And for me it was mostly nice to do it on a bike because this is just a typical mainly Dutch thing and also an Amsterdam thing.”

Other voters took advantage of unusual polling places to revisit memories or see a museum for the first time in months because they have been closed during an extended lockdown.

Fleur Sleurheij, a 19-year-old from Amsterdam, went to a church on one of Amsterdam's historic canals.

“Well, my grandmother’s funeral was in this church, so it’s very special to be here today in such a different setting and to be able to vote for the first time," she said.

Jan Mazure visited the Kunstmusem in The Hague that emerged briefly from its lockdown to welcome voters.

“It’s great to just see a little bit of museum and vote,” he said.

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