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Dutch people go to the polls for midterm provincial elections


THE HAGUE, Netherlands — In the Netherlands, voters cast their ballots on Wednesday in what a populist leader called “game-changing” elections for provincial legislatures that have national impact because they also indirectly decide the composition of the country’s national senate.

A major move away from longtime Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling four-party centre-right coalition could affect his ability to ram reforms through the upper house of the national parliament during the rest of his term.

The vote comes amid widespread dissatisfaction with Rutte’s government and farmers’ anger over plans to curb nitrate pollution.

Underscoring the discontent, Rutte and other political leaders were briefly unable to leave the venue for the final election debate on Tuesday night because of farmers and others protesting outside.

“It wasn’t a problem,” Rutte said on Wednesday. “We were in good hands. I had a nice cup of coffee.”

When voting, farmer Niko Blomenkamp said he was unhappy with the way the Netherlands’ lucrative farming industry was being treated.

“I think it is very important for the agricultural sector (that) the quality remains and that the farmers are supported,” he said. “I think it’s important, but the way the government is handling it now, I think it’s not good for us.”

Dozens of parties contest provincial elections in this country of nearly 18 million people, many of whom are small and local. Voters will also elect members of the country’s 21 local water authorities, key institutions in a country more than a quarter of which lies below sea level and which has endless lines of levees to protect its heart.

Rutte, who came to power in 2010 and is now the Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, is under pressure after a parliamentary inquiry into earthquakes caused by natural gas extraction in the northern province of Groningen l criticized, as well as his government. Rutte’s administration has yet to formally respond to the findings, but he acknowledged that the findings were “harsh and painful.”

Polls show the peasant-citizen populist movement led by lawmaker Caroline van der Plas is likely to win big in the election as it taps into the discontent of rural communities who see themselves as being sidelined by the government in The Hague.

The party, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, was formed in 2019 and is taking part in provincial elections for the first time. He won 1% of the vote in the 2021 national election with Van der Plas, a former agriculture journalist, becoming a national lawmaker.

As she voted in a small village 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Amsterdam, Van der Plas said her party was not just for farmers, but for rural communities across the country. where many voters feel alienated from national politicians.

“In these elections, we are so big in the polls that it can be a game-changer for the whole government as well,” she said.

“We like to be the biggest, at least in the rural areas, so that we can make statements in the provinces and in the first chamber,” she said, using the Dutch name of the senate.

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said van der Plas’ brand of what he described as “folk nationalism” gave him a broad appeal extending beyond farmers and to “voters suburban and urban people who have a traditional and conservative right-wing outlook”. about life.”

Arriving on his bicycle to vote in The Hague, Rutte played down the possible effect of a BBB victory over his coalition.

“I really think these are elections for provinces and water authorities,” he told The Associated Press. very big conclusions from such a result.

The anti-immigration Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders fared poorly in the last provincial election in 2019, but polls suggest it will bounce back this time around. Wilders supports farmers and calls for more investment in affordable housing and a drastic reduction in immigration.

Meanwhile, on the left, the Dutch Labor and Green parties have said they will join forces in the Senate after the election, meaning a strong electoral performance could make them the largest electoral bloc in the upper house.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.