Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has seen off a challenge by anti-Islam, right- wing firebrand Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections, a huge relief to other EU governments facing a wave of nationalism.
Exit polls projected Rutte’s centre-right VVD Party to win 31 of parliament’s 150 seats on Wednesday, down from 41 at the last vote in 2012 but ahead of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which tied in second place with two other parties at 19 each.
“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.”
“It is also an evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said stop to the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte said.
He said he had spoken to several European leaders, who called to congratulate him.
Wilders, whose party is projected to increase its parliamentary seats to 19 from the 15 won in 2012, tweeted: “We won seats! The first victory is in! And Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!!“
The result is well down from his 2010 high of 24 seats while support for the two most pro-EU parties, the progressive D66 and GreenLeft, was way up.
The result was a relief to mainstream parties across Europe, particularly in France and Germany, where right-wing nationalists hope to make a big impact in elections this year, potentially posing an existential threat to the EU.
“The Dutch have rejected the anti-European populist. Good for that. We need you for a strong Europe in 2017,” the German foreign ministry tweeted, showing relief that Britain’s vote to quit the EU had not been followed by a shock from the Dutch.
French President Francois Hollande congratulated Rutte for his election success and his “clear victory against extremism”.
The exit polls helped the euro rise to its highest against the dollar since February 7.
Rutte got a last-minute boost from a diplomatic row with Turkey, which allowed him to take a well-timed tough line on a majority Muslim country during an election campaign in which immigration and integration have been key issues.
But while Rutte averted what in the early stages of the campaign looked like a possible victory for Wilders, years of austerity pushed down his share of the vote.
His junior partner in the outgoing coalition, Labour, suffered its worst ever result, winning just nine seats, down from 38 last time.
That means it will likely take months for Rutte to negotiate a ruling coalition, with at least three other parties needed to reach a majority in parliament.