Dutch citizens voted en masse on Wednesday on the final day of a national election fought during the coronavirus pandemic, with conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte expected to be granted a fourth term in office.
The election is widely seen as a referendum on the government's performance during the crisis, in which more than 15,000 people have died of Covid-related illnesses and police have clashed with protestors opposed to lockdown measures.
With a night-time curfew in place due to continuing high infection rates, and a ban on public gatherings during the day, the campaign was conducted mostly through television debates.
Rutte's main rivals have criticized a slow vaccine roll out, but struggled to distinguish themselves as they support government policy.
"I've been taking responsibility for the past 10 years" said Rutte, 54, one of Europe's longest-serving politicians, at a final debate Tuesday night. "I'm trying to govern, in difficult circumstances."
Roughly 13 million voters are eligible to pick from dozens of parties contesting spots in the 150-seat parliament. The first exit poll is expected shortly after voting ends at 2000 GMT on Wednesday.
In a sign of the difficulty holding an election during the pandemic, the Dutch politician leading the government's response to Covid-19 said he was going into quarantine.
"I just received a notification from the corona app that I may have been in contact with someone who recently tested positive," Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said on Twitter after casting his ballot. "Luckily I have no symptoms."
Vulnerable groups and the elderly, who were given expanded mail-in and proxy voting options, were encouraged to vote on the first two days, with the general public following on Wednesday.
A centre-left party that is a junior member of Rutte's coalition has made late gains in opinion polls on the strength of the performance in debates of its leader, Sigrid Kaag, who served as United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon in 2015-2017.
The two most recent polls, conducted after voting began on Monday, showed Rutte's party taking around 25% percent of the vote, with Kaag's D-66 now pulling level with the largest opposition party, the Freedom party of anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders at 12-14%.
"You sound like a broken record," Kaag told Wilders in a testy debate exchange on Tuesday night. Wilders later accused Kaag of "treason" for having worn a head scarf during a diplomatic visit to Iran.