LEIDEN, the Netherlands — Mark Rutte, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, saw his Party for Freedom and Democracy win big in Dutch elections on Wednesday, setting him up for a fourth term as prime minister of the Netherlands.
“We have to bring this country back to where it should be, as one of the best performing countries in the world,” Mr. Rutte said in a televised victory speech. “I have enough energy for even 10 more years.”
Mr. Rutte, who describes his party as “center-right,” must now form a coalition with other parties to obtain a majority in Parliament. D66, a liberal-democratic party led by the former United Nations diplomat Sigrid Kaag, came in second. Mr. Rutte and Ms. Kaag are set to lead talks over forming a new government.
Mr. Rutte’s party gained three seats as compared with similar elections in 2017, according to exit polls published by the public broadcaster NOS on Wednesday
Mr. Rutte and his cabinet had resigned in January over a scandal involving the tax authorities’ targeting of people, mostly poor, who had made administrative mistakes in their requests for child benefits. Many were ruined financially after being forced to pay back benefits to which they had been entitled.
The scandal did not play a significant role during the campaign, however, nor did Mr. Rutte’s wavering polices for dealing with the coronavirus. He and his cabinet stayed on in a caretaker role until the election in order to manage the pandemic response.
“This has been a corona election, and most of those in power have been rewarded,” said Tom-Jan Meeus, a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. He said the dispersed wins by several right-wing parties combined did not go beyond their usual threshold of about 18 percent.
“These elections are a victory for parties in the political middle, no change for the radical right and a loss for the left,” he added.
Mr. Meeus said that he did not expect big shifts in policy, “but there will be more pressure on Mark Rutte to have more pro-European policies, from the parties he has to govern with.”
Ms. Kaag, a career diplomat who speaks multiple languages including Arabic, is a staunch supporter of the European Union, as is her party. She served in the outgoing cabinet as minister of international trade and development.
Last May, Mr. Rutte led a group of nations that refused blank-check payments for southern European countries to support their economies during the pandemic. He will now be forced to compromise on such stances if he enters into a coalition with D66.
Voters in the Netherlands had cast their ballots in one of the first major European elections to take place during the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the continent in successive waves.
Neighboring Germany is also entering a packed election season, with national and state votes coming in a year that will bring to an end the 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel.
Geert Wilders, a populist who has opposed immigration from Muslim countries and called for a ban of the Quran, saw his Party for Freedom lose two seats, though it remained the third largest.
Another right-wing party, the Forum voor Democratie, led by Thierry Baudet, at the height of its popularity appeared ready to win 26 seats, according to opinion polls taken in 2019, but public infighting led some prominent politicians to leave and start their own party. Mr. Baudet’s party won six new seats for a total of eight, according to exit polls late Wednesday.
The elections are among of the first to take place in Europe since the coronavirus broke out last spring, sparking repeated lockdowns across the continent as the death toll grew. Portugal voted in presidential elections in January, re-electing the center-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for a second term in office.
The pandemic has changed the usual dynamic of organizing elections in the Netherlands, but did not seem to affect turnout on Wednesday. Long lines of socially distanced voters stood waiting in the early afternoon in the historical center of Leiden, a university town near The Hague. At many polling stations voters were allowed to take home the red pencils they used to cast their ballots, a measure to help prevent the virus from spreading.
“There is no way anyone can get corona with all these measures,” said Niels Romijn, a civil servant, as he entered a public library to cast his ballot. “Everybody was super chill,” he said, happily showing off his free red pencil. “Civil duty,” he said with a laugh.
Polling stations had been open nationwide since Monday to allow vulnerable voters to avoid crowds. Voters over 70 were encouraged to vote by mail. And campaigning mainly took place on television, making it hard for voters to spontaneously confront politicians as is typical practice in the Netherlands.
Coronavirus cases are once again surging in the Netherlands, prompting the authorities to warn of a third wave. Last year, it took Mr. Rutte’s government until November to ramp up testing, and now, the vaccination process has been advancing slowly.
However, local issues, not the government’s handling of the coronavirus, dominated the election campaign.
Broader policies put forward by Mr. Rutte, who has been in power since 2010, were also a focus on the campaign trail, with opponents questioning his government’s repeated cutbacks in health care, policing and other essential services.
Mr. Rutte has ruled out any form of cooperation with Mr. Wilders’ Freedom Party, meaning that he will likely have to engage with other parties. Wednesday’s vote brings a record of 17 parties to the 150-seat Dutch parliament.