Voting in a low-key Dutch general election defined by the coronavirus pandemic opened on Monday, overshadowed by the caretaker government's decision to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca jab, and by another sharp increase in new cases of the virus.
Several of the government's expert advisers had urged acting prime minister Mark Rutte to consider a delay until later in the year, but in the end it was decided to spread polling over three days, Monday to Wednesday, and to spend millions of euro on social distancing precautions.
As a result, polling stations opened at 7.30am on Monday at an initial 1,600 locations, many of them major transport hubs designed to maximise numbers. Churches, theatres and schools were also used. The over 70s have the option of postal voting.
In a sign of the far-from-normal times, campaigning is still being allowed during that unprecedented three-day voting window, and the usual ban on opinion polls during voting will also be lifted. An outcome is expected on Wednesday evening.
As polling gets under way, however, the primary focus of many of the 13 million citizens eligible to vote will not be on the outcome of the election – which is widely expected to see Mr Rutte leading a fourth, not dissimilar, coalition government - but on the progress of the vaccine rollout.
The Netherlands was the last EU country to begin vaccinating. However, the government pledged somewhat optimistically last week, in advance of the election, that everyone who wanted a jab would have access to at least one by July 1st.
There’s dismay that the latest target could now also be in doubt because it was based on delivering 290,000 doses of AstraZeneca over the next fortnight alone – and already by Monday evening at least 43,000 appointments, at a conservative estimate, had been cancelled.
Acting health minister Hugo de Jonge said the precautionary moratorium on AstraZeneca will continue until March 28th.
With the vaccine rollout slowing, there’s growing concern at a parallel increase in new cases of the virus. The Netherlands recorded 6,446 cases in the 24 hours to Saturday, the biggest daily increase in two months, and a 13 per cent increase in a week.
There were 18 more deaths in the 24 hours to Monday, though 33 people a day died on average over the previous week.
A major question will be whether those figures are connected to the reopening of secondary schools on March 1st.
Almost unnoticed, political campaigning is going on. In a bid to avoid being sidelined by the mainstream parties when the process of forming a coalition begins on Thursday, Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders said the three largest parties should be first to discuss a coalition.
This is a reference to the fact that in the past two elections, the major parties have refused to do business with Mr Wilders because of his extreme views despite the fact that he leads the Netherlands’ second-largest party.
“Remember,” he declared, “you the voters are in charge – not Mark Rutte.”