Mark Rutte on course to form coalition in the Netherlands

Liberal Party set to win 35 seats with far-right Freedom Party forced into third place

An exit poll in the Netherlands shows the Liberal Party, led by outgoing premier Mark Rutte, on course to form a fourth coalition government after an unprecedented general election held against the backdrop of the pandemic, a locked down economy and a nightly curfew.

In an endorsement of Mr Rutte’s personal popularity, the Ipsos poll for national broadcaster, NOS, gives the party 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, an increase of two on their 2017 performance – clearing the way for talks on a new centre-right coalition government.

The biggest shock of the poll is that the far-right Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has been forced into third place by centrist D66. The Freedom Party dropped three seats to 17, while D66, under a new leader, pro-Europe former diplomat, Sigrid Kaag, shot up eight seats to 27.

That reversal of fortune for Mr Wilders and consequent gain for Ms Kaag forced the Christian Democrats, traditional coalition allies of Mr Rutte's Liberal Party – led by finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra – into fourth place from third in 2017, dropping five seats to a lacklustre 14.

Among the also rans, Labour looks likely to remain on nine. GreenLeft, which won 14 seats in 2017 under youthful leader Jesse Klaver, appears to have taken a blow, and could fall back to as few as eight. The junior coalition partners, Christian Union, look likely to drop one seat to four.

Early indications also showed a boost for Mr Wilders’ far-right competition, Forum for Democracy, which could take as many as seven seats.

The official election result is expected to be known on Thursday, but there seems every possibility that a new four-party coalition, again under Mr Rutte, will be the outcome – though the formation of coalitions in the Netherlands can take months.

Covid-19 cases rise

Latest figures show the number of new coronavirus cases in the Netherlands continuing to rise; up 5,974 in the 24 hours to Wednesday or 25 per cent week on week. To allow social distancing, the election was held over three days, beginning on Monday.

A total of 12 per cent of the eligible electorate of about 13 million cast their ballots on Monday and Tuesday, while another seven per cent aged over 70 voted by post. The government was forced to modify the mail-in rules on Tuesday after some confusion.

The net effect of the early voting was that by 10.30am on Wednesday, 30 per cent of the electorate had been to the polls – double the 15 per cent in 2017 when the final turnout was an extraordinary 81.9 per cent, the highest in 31 years.

Despite the apparent inevitability of the outcome, some 2.2 million watched Tuesday evening’s low-key TV debate between the leaders of the seven largest parties.

The debate focused on taxation, housing and climate change, which will be key issues in the coalition negotiations, which could start as early as next week.