New populist BBB wins Dutch vote; Rutte coalition down

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Lawmaker Caroline van der Plas, leader of the populist BBB Farmer Citizen Movement casts her vote for the provincial elections in Okkenbroek, eastern Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Local elections with national consequences opened Wednesday in the Netherlands as voters cast their ballots for the country's 12 provincial legislatures, which in turn elect the national parliament's upper house. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE – A new populist party riding anger among Dutch farmers and rural communities at government policies to rein in agricultural pollution emerged as the big winner in provincial elections Wednesday, according to early exit polls.

The elections for the Netherlands' 12 provincial legislatures also indirectly decide the makeup of the country’s national senate — and the win for the Farmer Citizen Movement was seen as a powerful protest vote against Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his four-party center-right governing coalition.

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An IPSOS exit poll predicting the 75 seats in the senate said the Farmer Citizen Movement, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, would probably emerge with 15 seats, tying it as the biggest bloc with a combination of the center-left Labor Party and Dutch Green Party. Rutte’s coalition, which already did not have a majority in the senate, saw its combined seat holding shrink to 24 from 32. The exit polls have a margin of error of one seat per party.

The early results cast Rutte's plans to reduce farm nitrate pollution into doubt as his government has tasked provincial legislatures with developing plans to radically reduce emissions.

They also cast a shadow over the remainder of Rutte's term in office as he is likely to face problems getting legislation through the senate, the upper house of the national parliament. The next national elections are scheduled for 2025.

“Now is the time to take citizens seriously. I am open to talks with everybody. We are ready," said BBB leader Van der Plas.

She buried her face in her hands when the first exit poll was broadcast and said: “This is not normal. I never expected this."

Her party was formed in 2019 and is taking part in provincial elections for the first time. It won 1% of the votes in the national election in 2021, with Van der Plas, a former journalist focusing on agriculture, becoming a national lawmaker and growing in popularity with her down-to-earth image.

“She looks like a big winner tonight,” Rutte said as he congratulated her. But he added: "We are still a big party. We take our responsibility.”

Full results were expected Thursday.

Wednesday's elections underscored how fickle the fortunes of populist parties can be. The far-right Forum for Democracy led firebrand Thierry Baudet saw its fortunes totally reverse, just as the BBB soared. The anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders failed to capitalize on the decline of Forum.

The voting came amid widespread dissatisfaction with Rutte’s government and anger among farmers at plans to rein in nitrate pollution, and the big win for BBB was also seen as a ballot box punishment for Rutte's four-party coalition.

As he voted, farmer Niko Blomenkamp said he is unhappy with the way the Netherlands’ lucrative agriculture industry is being treated.

“It’s very important for the agricultural sector (that) quality remains and the farmers are supported,” he said. “That’s important, but the way the government is dealing with it now, I think it’s not good for us.”

The governing coalition wants to cut emissions of pollutants, predominantly nitrogen oxide and ammonia, by 50% nationwide by 2030. Ministers call the proposal an “unavoidable transition” that aims to improve air, land and water quality.

The plans have sparked mass protests by farmers in recent years, including blocking supermarket distribution centers with tractors and torching hay bales alongside highways. At farms across the nation, the Dutch flag hangs upside down as a sign of protest.

Dozens of parties take part in the provincial elections in this nation of nearly 18 million people, many of the parties small and local.

Voters were also electing 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.

Rutte, who came to power in 2010 and is now the Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, was already 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 hasn’t yet formally responded to the findings, but he acknowledged that the conclusions were “hard and painful.”

As she voted in a tiny village 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Amsterdam, Van der Plas said her party wasn’t just for farmers, but for rural communities across the country where many voters feel alienated from national politicians.

“This can also be a game changer for the whole government,” she said.

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said Van der Plas’ brand of what he described as “folksy nationalism” gives her broad appeal extending beyond farmers and into “suburban and urban voters who have a traditional and conservative right-wing outlook on life.”

Arriving on his bicycle to vote in The Hague, Rutte played down the possible effect of a victory for the BBB on his coalition.

“I really think it’s elections for the provinces and water authorities,” he told The Associated Press. “And of course also for the senate, so in that sense there is also something of national policy in it, but I would be careful about drawing very big conclusions from such a result.”

Meanwhile, on the left, the Dutch Labor and Green parties have said they will join forces in the senate after the elections. Wednesday's exit poll had their combined holding of 15 seats level with BBB in the upper house.

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