THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday in local elections with a national impact, with campaign themes ranging from local bugbears like dwindling public transport in remote villages to global issues such as migration and the environment.
It is also a test of strength for Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s four-party center-right coalition, especially since newly elected provincial lawmakers also pick a new upper house of the national parliament in May. A big shift could affect Rutte’s ability to pass legislation for the remainder of his coalition’s term in office.
After increasingly populist campaigning, the vote for the country's 12 provincial parliaments is expected to highlight a simmering discontent with Rutte's government and the continuing rise of a party representing farmers angry at moves to contain their output in an attempt to rein in pollution.
Across the nation of nearly 18 million people, dozens of parties take part in the elections, 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.
Often elections with little impact in the past, Wednesday's poll could be a turning point for Rutte.
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."
His government also has faced massive protests by farmers over plans to slash emissions of nitrates that damage protected natural habitats. Thousands of farmers and others, including many from the far right of the political spectrum, gathered in a park in The Hague on Saturday for a protest demonstration.
Sylvia Smits, a 61-year-old protester lamented what she sees as the demise of the country amid the cost of living crisis in the Netherlands that also is hitting many other wealthy European nations.
"There’s a shortage of food, many people do not have enough money to eat every day. And it’s really horrible. The Netherlands, Holland, was once a very, very rich country, but now we are falling apart,” she said.
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.”
Van der Plas did not attend Saturday's farmers' protest in The Hague, telling Dutch media that she has been facing threats.
The anti-immigration Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders performed poorly in the last provincial elections in 2019 but is tipped to regain ground this time. Wilders supports farmers and is calling for more investment in affordable housing and drastic reduction in immigration.
“The Dutch people are in last place and I’m fed up with that,” he said in a speech at the farmers' protest.
He said a vote for his party “will return the Netherlands to the Dutch people on Wednesday. Then we will put the Dutch people first again.”
“There has to be more investment in the provinces,” he said in a recent television interview. “Good infrastructure, shops, services and bus stops must remain available for the people.”
Forum for Democracy, the far-right populist party which won the last provincial elections, has been riven by defections and unrest in recent years and is expected to see its share of the vote decline.
To the left of Rutte’s center-right coalition, the Dutch Labor and Green parties have said they will form a combined bloc in the senate after the elections, possibly making it the single biggest grouping.