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Dutch PM Rutte beats anti-Muslim leader Wilders in election

PM Mark Rutte says the Netherlands rejects the 'wrong kind of populism' after Brexit and Donald Trump's election
Wilders and Rutte, right, during debate in Rotterdam on13 March (Reuters)

Centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte scored a resounding victory over anti-Islam and anti-EU Geert Wilders in Dutch elections on Wednesday, offering huge relief to other governments across Europe facing a wave of nationalism.

"It appears that the VVD will be the biggest party in the Netherlands for the third time in a row," a beaming Rutte told cheering supporters at a post-election party in The Hague. "Tonight we'll celebrate a little."

Rutte received congratulatory messages from European leaders and spoke with some by telephone.

"It is also an evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," he  added.

With nearly 11 percent of votes counted, Rutte's VVD Party was projected to win 32 of parliament's 150 seats, down from 41 in the last vote in 2012, but ahead of Wilders, who was in third place at 20 seats, according to data provided by the ANP Dutch news agency.

The Christian Democrat CDA was second with 21 seats, the data showed.

At 81 percent, turnout was the highest in 30 years in an election that was a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of liberalism and choose a nationalist, anti-immigrant path by voting for Wilders, who had pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut down mosques, ban sales of the Quran and leave the EU if he was elected with the largest party in the parliament.

Ballots are counted in The Hague, 15 March (Reuters)

The Dutch centre-left Labour Party had a disastrous night, projected to lose almost 30 of its 38 seats, but the biggest winner was the Green Left party, led by the telegenic 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, which exit polls suggested would quadruple its seats to 16. In the capital Amsterdam, the Green Left became the biggest party. 

Wilders congratulated Rutte on his victory, promising firm parliamentary opposition if he did not end up in the coalition.

"Thank you PVV Voters! We won seats!" Wilders said in a tweet after exit poll results were released. "The first victory is in! And Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!!"

Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far-right

- Jean-Marc Ayrault, foreign minister of France

Trumpeting the country's economic growth and stability, Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country - one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding member of the European Union.

"This is a crucial election for The Netherlands," Rutte said after voting.

"This is a chance for a big democracy like the Netherlands to make a point... to stop this... domino effect of the wrong sort of populism."

Near record turnout

Queues began forming early at polling stations on a warm spring day amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, in which many of the 12.9 million eligible voters had been wavering among the record 28 parties running.

'The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen's quest for the French presidency, starting April 23 – that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon'

-Mabel Berezin, sociology professor

In a rare move, polling stations in Rotterdam and The Hague were allowed to stay open beyond the 9pm closing time in order to allow all those in line to cast their ballots.

In The Hague's city centre, where many residents are from Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese backgrounds, a steady flow of voters – many of them women wearing headscarves – came and went at polling stations.

One Muslim voter told AFP she was afraid of Wilders' fiery anti-Islam rhetoric.

"If you have one person who criticises, it's OK. But every time another person comes and then another one... then it's really hard to defend yourself," said student Khadiga Kallouh, 22.

"My mother had never voted before, but now she has and encouraged the whole family to do so because the situation is serious," said another headscarf-wearing woman.  

Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the US, said defeat for Wilders, who has been in parliament for almost two decades, should not be considered a sign that European populism is waning.

"He does not represent a populist wave. Rather, he is part of the political landscape and how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism," she said.

"The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen's quest for the French presidency, starting April 23 – that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon."

PM Rutte appears before supporters in The Hague, 15 March (Reuters)
Fragmented landscape

After months riding high in the polls, Wilders slipped back in recent weeks.

Tough coalition talks are now likely to follow, to put in place the next government.

Rutte, who had 40 seats in the outgoing parliament, has vowed never again to work with Wilders, turned off by his incendiary message, and after the PVV caused an earlier coalition to collapse in 2010.

It takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority.

"I am hoping for a strong centre" coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft, one of the first voters on Wednesday.

"But I'm afraid it's going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government," he told AFP.

Rutte's handling of a diplomatic crisis with Ankara - barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another - appears to have boosted his image.

Wilders had received support on Tuesday from ideological ally Le Pen, who called him "a patriot".

Some US Republicans, including Iowa Congressman Steve King, had also expressed support for Wilders.

France's foreign minister congratulated the Dutch people for the election results.

"Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far-right," Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Twitter. "Desire to work for a stronger Europe."