As final votes cast, Dutch PM Rutte expected to stay in office after pandemic election By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to reporters in Berlin

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch voters headed to voting stations en masse on Wednesday, the third and final day of a national election amid the coronavirus pandemic that is expected to return conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte to power for a fourth term.

The election is widely seen as a referendum on the government’s performance during the crisis.

With a night-time curfew in place due to continuing high infection rates, and a ban on public gatherings during the day, the campaign was conducted mostly through television debates. Rutte’s main rivals have criticized a slow vaccine roll out, but struggled to distinguish themselves as they support government policy.

“I’ve been taking responsibility for the past 10 years” said Rutte, 54, one of Europe’s longest-serving politicians, at a final debate Tuesday night. “I’m trying to govern, in difficult circumstances.”

Roughly 13 million voters are eligible to pick from dozens of parties contesting spots in the 150-seat parliament. The first exit poll is expected shortly after voting ends at 2000 GMT on Wednesday.

Vulnerable groups and the elderly, who were given expanded mail-in and proxy voting options, were encouraged to vote on the first two days, with the general public following on Wednesday.

A centre-left party that is a junior member of Rutte’s coalition has made late gains in opinion polls on the strength of the performance in debates of its leader, Sigrid Kaag, who served as United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon in 2015-2017.

The two most recent polls, conducted after voting began on Monday, showed Rutte’s party taking around 25% percent of the vote, with Kaag’s D-66 now pulling level with the largest opposition party, the Freedom party of anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders at 12-14%.

“You sound like a broken record,” Kaag told Wilders in a testy debate exchange on Tuesday night. Wilders later accused Kaag of “treason” for having worn a head scarf during a diplomatic visit to Iran.

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