Five things to know about virus-dominated Dutch vote

Party leaders Geert Wilders of PVV (L) and Mark Rutte of VVD (R) debate each other from during the broadcast of Pauw's election debates in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 11 March 2021. [Bart Maat/EPA/EFE]

Dutch voters go to the polls on Wednesday (17 March) for the last day of a three-day parliamentary election, in which Prime Minister Mark Rutte is aiming for a fourth term in office.

Here are five things to know about Covid-19 in the Netherlands, which has dominated the election campaign:

Current situation

The Netherlands, which by Tuesday had recorded more than 1.1 million coronavirus infections and more than 16,000 deaths, is currently under its most stringent health measures since the first restrictions started almost exactly a year ago.

There is a 9:00 pm to 4:30 am curfew in place and although schools partially reopened in recent weeks, restaurants and bars remain closed.

Non-essential stores remain shuttered but it is possible to shop by appointment or collection. The infamous Dutch coffee shops are allowed to sell takeaway cannabis, but consumption on the premises is prohibited.

Initial response: ‘intelligent lockdown’

Dutch authorities initially opted for what Rutte called an “intelligent lockdown” that was significantly more relaxed than neighbouring countries, hoping for collective immunity.

For a long time, the Netherlands also remained one of the few European countries not to impose the compulsory wearing of a face mask, but which is now the law for enclosed public spaces.

But the government gradually tightened the screws since September to fight a second wave at the onset of the winter months.

Opposition

The introduction of the controversial curfew in late January, the first since Nazi occupation in World War II, set off several nights of riots across the country, described as the worst in 40 years.

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Regular protests against the government’s health restrictions have also taken place, notably on Amsterdam’s Museum square. Police on Sunday used a water cannon and horse charges to break up protesters at the Malieveld square in The Hague.

A populist political party leader, Thierry Baudet, was one of the few politicians denouncing the government measures, and the only one holding rallies. Baudet received a warning from Twitter last week after posting an anti-vaccine message.

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Far-right leader Geert Wilders has also called for restrictions to be lifted more quickly, although unlike Baudet he has not questioned the seriousness of the disease.

However, opinion polls still say Rutte and his centre-right VVD will emerge as the big winner from the elections.

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Late to vaccinate

The Netherlands was the last of the 27 European Union member states to launch its vaccination campaign on 4 January, almost two weeks after jabs were started elsewhere in the bloc.

Despite a slow start, the vaccination campaign in the Netherlands is rapidly accelerating with around 1.9 million doses administered in the country so far, according to figures on Monday.

Vaccinations however could experience a further slowdown after Sunday’s announcement by the health ministry that it was suspending AstraZeneca shots over reports that the vaccine may cause blood clots.

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Longer polls

Legislative elections took place over three days this year, instead of the usual one day.

Some polling stations opened on Monday and Tuesday, mainly for the elderly and people who are at risk.

All voting stations will open on Wednesday for the rest of the population. Party leaders will also cast their votes on Wednesday.

Voters aged 70 and over were also allowed to cast ballots via mail.

Campaigning for the elections was meanwhile almost all online and via TV debates as mass gatherings were banned — though populist Baudet still held some rallies.

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