Mark Rutte is on course to win a historic fourth term as prime minister of the Netherlands after exit polls suggested his party was on course to increase its share of the votes in a campaign dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rutte’s right-leaning Freedom party (VVD) is due to increase its seats by three to 36 in a parliament due to contain a record 17 parties, according to an exit poll released by Ipsos after ballots closed on Wednesday night.
The biggest surprise of the election appears to be a surge in support for the pro-EU liberal democrat D66 party, which could become the second largest in the country, taking an additional eight seats to win a total of 27. The far-right anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders is due to drop from second to third largest, losing three seats, to a total of 17.
Should the exit poll prove correct, Rutte will be in pole position to lead his fourth coalition government, having already served as prime minister for 11 years. A coalition will need to have at least 76 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.
Rutte’s party has commanded a consistent lead over rivals during the course of the pandemic. The prime minister’s popularity has held firm despite controversies over his government’s Covid-19 curfew measures, which sparked riots last month, and a child benefits scandal that forced the previous four-party coalition to resign in January.
Speaking on Wednesday night, Rutte said he was “proud” of his party’s achievement but called for a quick government formation during the public health emergency.
“We’re in the middle of a very serious crisis and we’ll do our best,” he said.
Should he serve as prime minister in the next government, the 54-year-old former Unilever executive will become the country’s longest-serving leader.
D66, led by former UN diplomat Sigrid Kaag, is on course to be the biggest winner of the night, jumping to second largest in the lower house, or Tweede Kamer. The party is the only avowedly pro-EU force to have served in the last coalition and has tried to force more debate on European issues in a generally staid and domestically focused campaign.
The centre-right Christian Democrat party, which also served in the last coalition and is led by former finance minister Wopke Hoekstra, was due to lose around five seats, falling to 14. The three parties would have enough seats win a majority and serve in a continuity coalition.
The Netherlands’ purely proportional voting system means an unprecedented number of parties taking their seats in the lower house. Newcomers include the federalist EU Volt party, which won three seats in its first election campaign, and the anti-EU JA21, which also has three. The upstart Eurosceptic Forum for Democracy, led by Thierry Baudet, appears to have gained five seats to seven, according to the exit poll.
The country’s traditional left and green parties suffered at the ballot box. The Labour party (PvDA) failed to win any additional seats after enduring its worst electoral result in history in 2017. Greens leader Jesse Klaver also called his parties loss of six seats to a projected eight as “painful”.
The Dutch vote, carried out over the course of three days, is the first EU election to be held under lockdown restrictions. The last Dutch government took more than 200 days to form in 2017 — a luxury unlikely to be afforded to parties during the pandemic.
Rutte and Kaag’s D66 are likely to enter government but will need additional support, most likely from the centre-right party of Hoekstra, to secure a slim majority in the lower house. Party leaders will meet on Thursday to begin preliminary discussions.