The Hague (AFP) - Dutch voters went to the polls in local elections Wednesday with far-right parties hoping for gains, while all eyes were on a referendum over plans to extend government online spying powers.
More than 12 million voters are eligible to vote for councillors in the country's 380 municipalities, with ballots closing at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT). Initial exit polls and results are due soon afterwards.
However political analysts say that the local vote is being dwarfed by a simultaneous referendum over whether to back a new online security law.
The new legislation would allow the Dutch intelligence 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.
- 'Topic now on the table' -
Proponents of the legislation say it will give security services greater ability to monitor dangerous groups such as jihadist 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, who lined up Wednesday with other Dutch citizens to vote, has also urged support for the new law.
But he told NOS television late Tuesday that if there is an overwhelming "no" vote in the referendum "then the government will have to weigh the law again".
The latest polls said 53 percent of voters would back the law, with 34 percent against, according to the ANP news agency.
Critics, including rights organisations, fear private data unrelated to any investigation will also be scooped up by the government under the law.
"I am voting against the new law, because I'm worried that my personal details will be seen by everyone," Andrea Vonk, 77, from the port of Scheveningen, told AFP as she voted on the number 11 tram in The Hague.
But 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.
- Far-right hopes -
Despite early morning queues, Dutch media reported that by midday turnout was lower than in the last municipal elections in 2014.
Wednesday's ballot is also being seen as a test for far-right MP Geert Wilders, who took 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, 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, left-leaning Amsterdam, while in Rotterdam it is backing a local party.