THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Voters in the Netherlands cast their ballots Wednesday in what one populist leader called “game changer” elections for provincial legislatures that have a national impact because they also indirectly decide the makeup of the country's national senate.
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 reforms through the upper house of the national parliament 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.
“It wasn't a problem,” Rutte said Wednesday. “We were in good hands. I had a nice cup of coffee.”
As he voted, farmer Niko Blomenkamp said he's dissatisfied with the way the Netherlands' lucrative agriculture industry is being treated.
“I think it’s very important for the agricultural sector (that) quality remains and the farmers are supported,” he said. “I think that’s important, but the way the government is dealing with it now, I think it’s not good for us.”
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 hasn't 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 the national election in 2021 with Van der Plas, a former journalist focusing on agriculture, becoming a national lawmaker.
As she voted in a tiny village 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Amsterdam, Van der Plas said her party wasn't just for farmers, but for rural communities across the country where many voters feel alienated by national politicians.
“In these elections we are so big in the polls, this can also be a game changer for the whole government," she said.
"We like to be the biggest, at least in the rural areas, so we can make statements in the provinces and in the first chamber,” she said, using the Dutch name for the senate.
Andre Krouwel, a political scientist from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam said Van der Plas’ brand of what he described as “folksy nationalism” gave her broad appeal extending beyond farmers and into "suburban and urban voters who have a traditional and conservative right-wing outlook on life.”
Arriving on his bicycle to vote in The Hague, Rutte played down the possible effect of a victory for the BBB on his coalition.
“I really think it’s elections for the provinces and water authorities," he told The Associated Press. "And of course also for the senate, so in that sense there is also something of national policy in it, but I would be careful about drawing very big conclusions from such a result.”
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.
Meanwhile, on the left, the Dutch Labor and Green parties have said they will join forces in the senate after the elections, meaning that a strong electoral showing could make them the biggest single voting bloc in the upper house.