PM Rutte projected to land fourth Dutch election win; 63% of votes counted
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FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrives to speak to the press following exit polls in the Netherlands' general election in The Hague, Netherlands, March 17, 2021. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool
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By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will begin initial talks to form a new government on Thursday, after a national election dominated by the coronavirus pandemic in which his conservative VVD party was projected to secure a fourth consecutive win.
With 63% of Wednesday's vote counted, Rutte's party was on track to take 36 out of 150 seats in the lower house.
Rutte said a new coalition with the left-leaning pro-European D-66 party, led by former U.N. diplomat Sigrid Kaag, which is projected to make the biggest gains and finish in second place with 24 seats, "would seem obvious".
The result was an endorsement of Rutte's handling of the pandemic, even though infection rates remain high and the rollout of vaccination has been slow. But with the unexpected strength of D-66, which did better than opinion polls had forecast, it was also an endorsement of the political centre.
"Dutch people are not extreme, they are moderate," a beaming Kaag said after the initial exit poll was broadcast on Wednesday, calling her run a "crazy adventure".
On the far right, the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders lost seats, as did the environmentalist Green Party on the left.
Rutte, who has been prime minister since 2010, currently leads a caretaker government with the Christian Democrats and D-66, the two parties that are likely to help form the core of his new coalition.
He said his first priority would be to continue managing the pandemic: "The challenges ahead of us are enormous. In the coming weeks and months, we need to lead the country out of the coronavirus crisis."
Rutte said he hoped to build a new coalition as quickly as possible, given the urgency of the pandemic and other challenges facing the country. An initial meeting of party heads is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
The Netherlands is one of the first major European Union economies to hold elections during the COVID-19 crisis, and voting was held over three days to reduce the risk of infection.
The virus has killed more than 16,000 people in the nation of 17 million. Despite the pandemic, turnout was 83%, about as high as four years ago.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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