Dutch vote in local polls, referendum on spying powers


The Hague (AFP)

Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday in local elections with far-right parties seeking gains and all eyes on a referendum on plans to broaden government online spying powers.

Most polling stations across the Netherlands open at 7:30 am (0630 GMT) with more than 12 million voters eligible to pick councillors in the 380 municipalities. Ballots close at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT).

But political analysts say the local vote is being dwarfed by a simultaneous referendum over whether to back a new online security law giving Dutch intelligence services sweeping powers to tap online data.

"The consultative referendum on the law concerning the Dutch secret services ... is dominating the news," said Ruud Koole, political science professor at Leiden University.

- 'Repressive regimes' -

The referendum on the new security laws -- which would allow the Dutch secret service AIVD to trawl for information by tapping into internet fibre-optic cables -- was conceived by Amsterdam students.

Angered by what they see as a bid to hand the authorities over-arching powers, the students gathered enough support to force a non-binding referendum on the law, set to come into effect on May 1.

Proponents of the legislation say it will give security services greater ability to monitor dangerous groups such as jihadist organisations.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been among those urging voters to back the new law at the ballot box, saying it will help protect the country.

One of the latest polls said 53 percent of those planning to vote would back the law, with 34 percent against, according to the ANP news agency.

But critics, including rights organisations, fear private data unrelated to any investigation, will also be scooped up by the government.

It has "not been ruled out that information could be shared with repressive regimes," argued Amnesty International.

"The work and lives of activists and journalists could thus be endangered," it has claimed.

- Far-right hopes -

Wednesday's ballot is also seen as a test for far-right MP Geert Wilders, who barrelled his way into second place in general elections last year with his Freedom Party (PVV).

Rutte's liberal, business-friendly VVD party emerged as the biggest party in parliament with 33 seats, while the anti-Islam and eurosceptic PVV won 20 seats to become the country's main opposition.

Wilders is now hoping to boost his party's sway with PVV candidates running in some 30 municipalities, which would be a big increase on the six councils in which the party is currently present.

"Right-wing parties gained in the national elections in 2017, mainly because of the weak attractiveness of the Left. That has not changed," said Koole.

But the PVV is also facing a challenge from the far-right Forum for Democracy, led by the charismatic Thierry Baudet, who could well appeal to conservative and more educated, younger voters.

Baudet, a lawmaker with a rabble-rousing unorthodox style of parliamentary debate, won two seats in last year's national polls.

His party however is only standing in free-wheeling, liberal Amsterdam and in Rotterdam where it has entered into a coalition with a local party in the port city.

Meanwhile, two 14-year-olds are also standing as local councillors, one in the southern city of Tilburg and the other in nearby Someren. But if they are elected, they will have to wait until they are 18 to take up their seats.