THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Local elections with national impact opened Wednesday in the Netherlands as voters cast their ballots for the country's 12 provincial legislatures — which in turn elect the national parliament's upper house.
A big swing away from the ruling four-party center-right coalition of long-serving Prime Minister Mark Rutte could affect his ability to push through reforms in the remainder of his term.
The vote comes amid widespread dissatisfaction with Rutte's government and anger among farmers at plans to rein in nitrate pollution.
Underscoring the discontent, Rutte and other political leaders were briefly unable to leave the venue of the final election debate Tuesday night because of farmers and others protesting outside.
Dozens of parties take part in the provincial elections in this nation of nearly 18 million, many of them small and local. Voters also will elect members of the country’s 21 local water authorities, key institutions in a nation more than a quarter of which is below sea level and which has endless lines of dikes to protect its heartland.
Rutte, who came to power in 2010 and is now the Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, is under pressure after a parliamentary inquiry into earthquakes caused by natural gas extraction in the northern province of Groningen was critical of him and his government. Rutte’s administration has not yet formally responded to the findings, but he acknowledged that the conclusions were “hard and painful.”
Polls show that the populist Farmer and Citizen Movement led by lawmaker Caroline van der Plas is likely to win big in the elections as it taps into discontent in rural communities that perceive themselves as sidelined by the government in The Hague.
The party, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, was formed in 2019 and is taking part in provincial elections for the first time. It won 1% of the vote in national elections in 2021 with Van der Plas, a former journalist focusing on agriculture, becoming a national lawmaker.
Andre Krouwel, a political scientist from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam said Van der Plas’ popularity now extends beyond just farmers.
“The farmers party is basically using a sort of folksy nationalism, referring to traditional ways of life and traditional Dutch landscape in order to be open to traditional social and moral values,” he said. “This creates an appeal that goes far beyond farmers, which are a very small proportion of the … population, and extends deep into suburban and urban voters who have a traditional and conservative right-wing outlook on life.”
The anti-immigration Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders performed poorly in the last provincial elections in 2019 but polls suggest it will bounce back this time. Wilders supports farmers and is calling for more investment in affordable housing and drastic reduction in immigration.