Mark Rutte has claimed an “overwhelming” victory in national elections in the Netherlands, vowing to use a fourth term in office to rebuild the country after the coronavirus pandemic.
Following a dull campaign fought during the pandemic and seen as a referendum on the government’s performance during the crisis, exit polls suggested the VVD had won 35 of the Dutch parliaments 150 seats, two more than in the previous election.
“The voters of the Netherlands have given my party an overwhelming vote of confidence,” a smiling Rutte told reporters in parliament.
Rutte said that “not everything has gone well in the last 10 years”, including his resignation in January over a scandal in which people were racially profiled and then falsely accused of scamming child benefits.
“But of course the main issue also on the table for the next years is how to rebuild the country going forward after corona.”
He added: “I have the energy for another 10 years.”
Sophie Hermans, vice-chair of the party’s parliamentary group, said: “The Netherlands has expressed confidence in the VVD, in Mark Rutte, in this unprecedented crisis.
“We succeeded, for the fourth time in a row. I’m very proud.”
An exit poll, conducted by Ipsos for Dutch public broadcaster NOS, predicted the progressive, pro-European D66 party, a member of Rutte’s outgoing coalition led by foreign minister Sigrid Kaag, finished second with 27 seats, up eight and the party’s best-ever result.
Kaag – who tweeted a picture of herself dancing on a table in celebration – said the result was “a great responsibility.”
The far-right, anti-Islam Freedom party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, meanwhile, lost three seats compared with the 2017 election, finishing third equal with another of Rutte’s coalition partners, the Christian Democrats (CDA), on 14 seats.
Congratulating Rutte despite a campaign in which he called him a “traitor”, Wilders said he had “hoped for a little more”, but that “we are still the third party in the Netherlands”.
Populist leader Thierry Baudet’s party did unexpectedly well on the back of Covid-sceptic votes in a country that recently suffered its worst riots in decades after the imposition of a coronavirus curfew.
In a disappointing night for the left, the Dutch Labour party (PvdA) finished unchanged on five seats, while two other left-leaning parties, GreenLeft and the Socialist party, both lost almost half their seats to finish with eight each.
The far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) won eight seats, the Party for the Animals six – one more than last time – and a newcomer, the pro- and pan-European Volt party, secured its first-ever parliamentary seats with four. Turnout was 81%.
Early results and particularly the strong performance of D66 suggested Rutte, who has headed three coalition governments of varying hues since 2010, would need at least two other parties to form a coalition with a majority of 76 MPs.
With a near-record 37 parties running in the election and, according to the exit poll, 16 making it into parliament, the shape of any future government is still up in the air. Coalitions can take months, with negotiations in 2017 lasting a record 208 days.
Rutte has ruled out a coalition with Wilders and with the far-right, Covid-denying Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet, but said the CDA of finance minister Wopke Hoekstra would be a “natural partner” again.
“The obvious next Dutch coalition on the basis of this result would be centre-right VVD-D66-CDA – basically a continuation of the current government,” said Pepijn Bergsen, a Chatham House researcher and Netherlands specialist.
However, Rutte may decide to explore alternative permutations or consider adding a fourth party, Bergsen suggested, because such a combination would “have only a minimal majority, and be far removed from a majority in the upper house”.
With a night-time curfew in place due to continuing high infection rates and a ban on public gatherings during the day, the election campaign was muted and conducted mostly through television debates.
To limit pandemic risks, elderly and at-risk voters cast their ballots on Monday and Tuesday before polls opened for everyone else on Wednesday. Rutte said he was “cautiously” optimistic as he arrived by bike to cast his vote at a school in The Hague.
“I am proud of what we have achieved in the last 10 years in the Netherlands,” said Rutte, adding that the country had “the best performing economy in Europe”. The main question was “who best can lead this country through the corona crisis and then make a new start,” he said.
The Netherlands has recorded more than 1.1m infections and 16,000 deaths, and largely remains largely under its strictest lockdown yet. Anti-lockdown discontent continues to simmer, with protests against Rutte in The Hague on Sunday.
But the popular prime minister, known as the “Teflon Mark”, has emerged unscathed from violent anti-lockdown riots and the fact that his cabinet was forced to resign in January over a scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of fraudulently claiming childcare benefits.