INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Dutch voters head to the polls next week in the first major test of a European government's coronavirus policies in 2021, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte on course to win a fourth term in office.
Despite the Netherlands recently suffering the worst riots for decades over its Covid curfew, Rutte leads in the polls as the Dutch appear to rally around the flag after a year of the pandemic.
The virus has dominated the debate ahead of the March 17 vote, leaving little space for other issues such as the anti-immigration message of the anti-Islam, EU-bashing opposition leader Geert Wilders.
Some polling stations will open on March 15 and 16 for the elderly and the Covid-vulnerable.
"This election of course it's very much Covid and also the economic decline crisis that will emerge from this," Andre Krouwel, who teaches political science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told AFP.
"That changes from previous elections when it was more about immigration and European integration."
A total of 37 parties, the most for decades, are competing for 150 seats in the Dutch lower house of parliament, in a crowded political landscape that usually produces unwieldy coalitions.
Rutte's liberal VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) currently has 33 seats and leads a four-party coalition along with the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and Christian Union, and the centre-left D66.
'Rally around the flag'
The elections will be closely watched in Europe as the Netherlands is the eurozone's fifth biggest economy, and the strongest voice besides Germany for financial discipline.
One of Europe's longest serving leaders, Rutte is now in his 11th year in power.
His party has consistently led opinion polls for months, though his popularity has dipped a little in recent weeks.
Dubbed the "Teflon" premier for emerging unscathed from crises, Rutte recently shrugged off the fact that he was forced to resign in January over a scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of scamming childcare.
Instead his coalition government has continued in a caretaker role, beginning to ease the country's toughest virus restrictions of the pandemic so far as elections loom.
The last Dutch elections in 2017 sparked fears across Europe that Wilders, the bleached blonde anti-Islam leader, could ride a wave of populism to victory after the 2016 Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
This time, however, even Wilders admits that coronavirus has sucked the oxygen out of the vote.
"The current government is rather popular now, at least the prime minister is, but then again in time of crisis people tend to rally around the flag," Wilders told AFP in an interview.
"Other issues such as immigration are still important, for my voters it's still number one, but if you look at the average Dutchman, corona is the number one issue indeed."
'There can be surprises'
The Netherlands last year initially opted for far laxer Covid restrictions than its neighbours, but drastically tightened up after the second wave hit.
The country remains under a 9pm to 4:30am nighttime curfew, with all cafes, restaurants and cannabis coffeeshops closed except for takeaway, and non-essential shops closed except by appointment.
The restrictions have severely limited the usually vibrant Dutch campaign season, with most parties having to reach out to voters through television debates or by social media.
The only party holding large rallies is the populist Forum for Democracy party of Thierry Baudet, who has adopted a stridently Covid-sceptic and anti-lockdown tone for the elections.
Analysts say another new phenomenon could be several small new parties joining parliament with one or two seats including the pro-Europe Volt party.
If Rutte wins, he is likely to have to put together a new coalition.
One possible new addition could be the GroenLinks (Green-Left) party of charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver, which did well last time although it has dipped slightly in polls recently.
"Something is changing... there can be surprises I think," Klaver told AFP.