And despite the unprecedented campaigning during a pandemic that could have been a big boon to populists, the far right is still far from becoming the dominant player in a nation going through a severe economic downturn.
Rutte, 54, has been in power for more than a decade at the head of three different coalitions and could become the country’s longest-serving prime minister if he manages to form a new government.
“This shows that the Netherlands trusts the VVD and Mark Rutte to continue in this unprecedented crisis,” said lawmaker Sophie Hermans.
Ipsos said before the poll that uncertainty caused by voting in the COVID-19 pandemic makes the margins of error larger than in other elections.
“A difference of two seats per party could happen more often. A difference of more than two seats cannot be completely ruled out,” Ipsos said in a statement.
The poll forecast that the centrist D66 party, which was part of Rutte’s last coalition, won 27 seats — eight more than at the last election — to become the country’s second largest party.
“This is silver with a golden glow,” D66 campaign leader Sjoerd Sjoerdsma told NOS.
The Freedom Party of anti-immigration firebrand Geert Wilders was forecast to drop three seats to 17, compared to the 2017 election result.
Another party on the far-right of the Dutch political spectrum, Forum for Democracy, did better, according to the poll, gaining 6 seats to reach 8. Its charismatic leader, Thierry Baudet, was one of the only leaders to hold campaign rallies around the country.
Counting votes at municipalities throughout the nation of more than 17 million is expected to last through the night.
School gyms, churches, museums, concert halls and at least one windmill were pressed into service as voting centers by authorities looking for venues where people could vote safely amid rising infection rates. In Amsterdam, cyclists and drivers voted in a drive-thru facility at a conference center.
Rutte’s popularity rose sharply last year as he steered his country through the pandemic that has killed more than 16,000 people in the Netherlands and plunged the prosperous nation into recession. But that popularity eroded in recent weeks as public support for a months-long lockdown declined and his government resigned over a scandal involving tax officials wrongly labeling thousands of families as fraudsters.
Rutte stressed the pandemic as a campaign theme, after cycling to a primary school in The Hague to cast his vote.
“The main question during these elections on the table is who best can lead this country forward through the crisis of corona and then make a new start with this country,” he said.
Wilders insisted Rutte was not that man.
“I don’t blame government for the virus, I blame them for not being prepared enough for that,” Wilders said. “But especially for giving our country away, giving out values away, giving our culture away, giving our money away. And I believe that Dutch should go first.”
Voters also had other issues on their minds, from the climate to housing shortages, health care funding and the Netherlands’ place in Europe.
But for Sandra Mulder, 58, the pandemic was the dominant theme as she voted at the same polling station as Rutte.
“It is mainly, how do we move on? What steps are necessary? How do we ensure that our future generations are burdened as little as possible with the legacy of corona?” she said.
Voting began Monday and Tuesday, ostensibly for people considered to be in high risk groups for the virus. People aged over 70 also had the option of mail-in voting.
The procedure for opening and counting postal votes had to be changed mid-election Tuesday after what the interior ministry called “procedural mistakes” by voters mailing in their ballots.
A record 37 parties took part in the election and the exit poll suggested 17 could win enough of the vote to take at least one seat in parliament.
Casert reported from Brussels