Dutch farmers set to turn protests into votes
A new party of Dutch farmers aimed to plough up Prime Minister Mark Rutte's environmental plans on Wednesday in crucial elections that will shape the upper house of parliament.
The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, or BBB) is hoping to ride a wave of recent protests against proposals to cut livestock numbers and close farms in order to reduce nitrogen pollution.
The Netherlands has been rocked by months of rowdy demonstrations in which farmers blockaded government buildings with tractors, winning support from international figures including former US president Donald Trump.
Opinion polls suggest the BBB, which was only founded in 2019 and has just one MP, could come second or even first in Wednesday's Dutch provincial elections as it taps into a strain of populist sentiment.
The regional elections in turn determine the composition of the new Dutch senate that will be formed in May, meaning the farmers could be in position to block legislation proposed by Rutte's coalition against the greenhouse gas.
First exit polls will be released after the polls close at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT).
Rutte, the Netherlands' longest serving leader who has been in power since 2010, says he has "hope" the four-party coalition led by his centre-right VVD party can solve the issue.
But farmers in the Netherlands -- a nation of nearly 18 million that is the world's second largest agricultural exporter after the United States -- say the government has ignored them.
"We don't really feel heard," Erik Stegink, national president of the BBB and a pig farmer himself, told AFP.
"Sometimes we don't even feel welcome in our own country anymore."
- Farmer protests -
The farmers' protests and their symbol of an upside-down Dutch flag have attracted global attention, blockading highways, dumping manure on roads and rallying noisily outside politicians' houses.
Thousands of farmers rallied in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, on Saturday. They also used tractors to blockade the location of a televised party leaders' debate in the town of Den Bosch on the eve of the election.
Tessel van der Veeken, a 21-year-old student voting in The Hague, said she was "not worried but curious" about the possibility of a BBB win.
Voter Michael van Heck, 69, described the farmers as a "populist party", adding that he expected a "big victory from the BBB and I hope at least stable for the VVD (Rutte's party).
The Dutch government aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030, saying that fertilisers and manure from agriculture are particularly to blame.
It says it must comply with a Dutch court order saying it had breached EU rules on nitrogen emissions affecting soil and water.
The farmers say they are being unfairly targeted by the still unfinalised proposals compared to sectors such as industry and transport.
The plans have also been seized on by the global far-right, who allege, without evidence, a sinister "globalist" plot to rob farmers of their land.
But opinion polls show that the Dutch far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) party, which won the last provincial elections in 2019, is set for losses this time.