THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch voters were casting ballots in local elections on Wednesday (March 21), with far-right parties seeking gains. They were also voting in a referendum on plans to broaden government online spying powers.
By 7.30am (2.30pm Singapore time) all polling stations had opened across the Netherlands, with queues of civic-minded Dutch beginning to build up.
More than 12 million voters are eligible to vote for councillors in the 380 municipalities, with ballots closing at 9pm (4am Thursday Singapore time).
But political analysts say the local vote is being dwarfed by the simultaneous referendum over whether to back a new online security law giving Dutch intelligence services sweeping powers to tap online data.
The new law would allow the Dutch secret service AIVD to trawl for information by penetrating internet fibre-optic cables.
But angered by what they see as a bid by authorities to grab over-arching powers, a group of Amsterdam students won 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 extremist organisations.
"This law is for the safety of the Netherlands and for the Dutch people," said AIVD head Rob Bertholee, adding on NOS television: "I am voting in favour."
Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also been among those urging support for the new law.
The latest polls said 53 per cent of voters would back the law, with 34 per cent 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 under the law.
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," Amnesty claimed.
One of the student activists who fought for the referendum said the most important thing was "the topic is now on the table".
"The new law happened almost silently. Now everyone is talking about it, so in that sense we have already won," said Tijn de Vos, quoted by ANP.
Wednesday's ballot is also seen as a test for far-right MP Geert Wilders, who took second place in general elections last year (2017) 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, more than ever before.
"Right-wing parties gained in the national elections in 2017, mainly because of the weak attractiveness of the Left. That has not changed," said Ruud Koole, political science professor at Leiden University.
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.
Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren, who was among the first to vote on Wednesday at the central train station in Amsterdam, said it was "an important day".
A member of the progressive Democracy 66 (D66) party, she urged everyone on a Twitter video to get out and vote on local issues such as "bike parking, rubbish collection, the sustainability of your city and schools".