Dutch voters on Wednesday headed to provincial polls billed by the opposition as a referendum on Prime Minister Mark Rutte, after a campaign overshadowed by a deadly attack on a tram.
Hardline right-wing parties pushed the issue of integration to the forefront as the country reeled from Monday’s shooting in the city of Utrecht for which a Turkish-born man and one other person have been arrested.
Rutte’s coalition, led by his centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party, looks set to lose its one-seat majority in the upper house of parliament, according to final opinion polls. That would leave it needing “kingmaker” parties to push through new laws.
The ballot, in which 13-million people are eligible to vote, will be widely watched abroad as a bellwether for European Parliament elections in May in which populist parties are expected to make broad gains.
The leaders of the 13 main parties on the fractured political scene had all cast their votes, including Rutte.
Following the Utrecht attack, almost all parties halted campaigning for the elections —which are for provincial bodies but determine the composition of the Dutch senate or upper house of parliament.
Only the populist, anti-EU Forum for Democracy (FvD), led by Thierry Baudet, continued with a rally in The Hague’s seaside suburb of Scheveningen, which drew sharp criticism from lawmakers.
The young and telegenic Baudet accused Rutte’s government of “naive” immigration policies and told the crowd that a “change of course is needed, otherwise this is going to happen more often in the Netherlands”.
The head of Dutch socialist party has called the vote a “Rutte referendum”, although Rutte has said he will not step down if his coalition loses its majority and therefore needs help to drive through laws.
Rutte has been in power for eight years, and after playing a key role in Brexit negotiations has been widely tipped to take up a top European Union post in Brussels when the current set-up led by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker steps down later this year.
Dutch newspapers predicted that GroenLinks — the leftist ecological party led by Jesse Klaver, a politician best known abroad for his strong resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — was set to make gains and become a potential senate kingmaker.
Meanwhile, Baudet’s party could threaten the anti-Islam Freedom Party of bleached blonde far-right leader Geert Wilders, which has traditionally attracted hardliners in the Netherlands.
But in a development that would be watched with alarm across Europe ahead of the European elections, the two hardline Dutch parties could together form the second biggest block in the senate.
The Utrecht attack, which claimed the lives of three people, and the arrest of the Turkish suspect proved the perfect fodder for both parties.
Baudet’s refusal to stop campaigning on Monday drew bitter condemnation from various MPs including Rob Jetten, leader of the left-leaning progressive D66 party — a partner in Rutte’s coalition — calling the action “disgusting.”
Baudet, known for his controversial statements such as “women in general excel less in jobs and have less ambition”, defended his actions, telling reporters that “many of the reactions seemed a bit put-on and don’t seem genuine”.
Often seen as relatively minor compared to elections for the lower house of parliament, which last took place in 2017, the Dutch provincial elections are still significant.
Voters can elect some 570 representatives to the country’s 12 provinces, who will in turn decide on May 27 who sits in the 75-seat upper house.
Previously seen as something of a rubber-stamp body, the Senate in recent years has become a political battleground as it has the final say whether to pass laws formulated by MPs in the lower house.
Polls say Rutte’s coalition partners — D66 and the Christian Democrats (CDA) — could drop as many as 10 seats.
Losing the majority would mean the coalition having to find other opposition partners to get laws passed, opening the door to potential kingmaker roles.
Turnout for provincial polls is traditionally low, standing at 56% in 2011 and almost 48% in 2015 as opposed to national elections in 2017, with a turnout of 82%.
© Agence France-Presse