Coronavirus has “completely taken the wind out of Dutch politics”, analysts say, predicting little change in the makeup of the coalition government after March elections as the prime minister, Mark Rutte, begins cautiously easing restrictions.
Despite three nights of rioting and 400 arrests after the night-time curfew, the first since the second world war, was imposed in January, and one of Europe’s slowest vaccine rollouts, Rutte enters the last two weeks of the election race in a dominant position.
Last week he extended the country’s nationwide 9pm-4am curfew by two weeks – until at least the morning of 15 March – when voting is due to begin in elections that will be held over three days to to limit the spread of the virus.
But the prime minister, whose government resigned in January over a childcare scandal and is acting in a caretaker capacity, also relaxed some lockdown measures in a calculated risk that he said was aimed at making the year-long crisis “bearable.”
The Netherlands was in “an incredibly difficult phase”, Rutte said, with infections rising again and experts saying a third wave of Covid-19 infections was inevitable. “But we are at a time when we have to be prepared to take a little more risk.”
Secondary schools will open for at least one day a week from Monday, and hairdressers and other “contact professions” will be able to go back to work. People with an advance appointment will be allowed to visit non-essential shops, closed since mid-December when coronavirus infections set new records almost daily. Bars and restaurants remain shut.
Analysts said the limited relaxation represented a compromise between the need to continue controlling the virus and the imperatives of politics: a poll this week showed 45% of Dutch people wanted the tough lockdown eased.
“There was a political wish to give people a bit of perspective, a sign of hope,” said Rem Korteweg of the Dutch Clingendael thinktank. “This is a vulnerable time; things could spiral out of control again. But he clearly felt he had to do something.”
The liberal conservative leader, who has headed three very different coalitions since 2010, is far ahead in the polls, with his People’s party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) on nearly 30% of the vote and looking at up to 40 parliament’s 150 seats.
“He has held on to the ‘rally round the flag’ boost he got at the start of the crisis,” said Pepijn Bergsen, a Chatham House researcher and Netherlands specialist, “and much of the VVD’s popularity is also down to the personal appeal of Mark Rutte.”
The scandal that forced the government to resign, in which more than 20,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud by the tax authority, has barely touched Rutte either, partly because it began under his previous administration.
“The minister in charge of the social security system at the time is now in opposition, and has resigned as Labour party leader,” Korteweg said. “That’s allowed Rutte and his current partners to deflect, say it’s structural, the whole system needs review.”
Polls suggest the VVD is likely to again finish as the country’s largest party and with more seats than it won in the previous 2017 election, making it all but certain it will form the next government – most likely with some of the same coalition partners.
The anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) is currently in second place with a projected total of just over 20 seats, little changed from the last elections. Rutte has already ruled out inviting the far-right party into a coalition.
“The issues Wilders and other far-right politicians thrive on just aren’t getting traction at the moment, mainly because of the pandemic,” said Bergsen. “Immigration, integration are no longer a burning question, so he’s left with little scope to attack.”
The coronavirus crisis, in fact, has “almost completely pacified the political debate – taken all the energy out of politics,” Bergsen said. “There are no dominant themes emerging, little real campaigning.” Korteweg agreed the campaign was “stifled”.
Under the Dutch system, parliament is elected by proportional representation in a single, nationwide constituency, meaning that any party that wins 0.67% of the national vote is assured of a seat. Fourteen parties sit in the current parliament.
This fragmentation has led to a sharp fall in support for the big traditional parties of government of the centre-right and left, and to a corresponding rise in the vote share of smaller parties. A record 37 will contest next month’s vote.
Analysts predict Rutte should be able to form a new coalition with just two of his three current partners: the Christian Democrat CDA, on course for around 20 seats, and the progressive D66 (about 14 seats), but without the smaller, far more socially conservative Christian Union whose support he needed for a majority in 2017.
Alternatively, he could try to form a new alliance with the CDA and the Labour party (PvdA) which, after a disastrous showing in the last elections in which it lost three-quarters of its seats, is staging a modest recovery in the polls and could also land up to 13 seats.