AMSTERDAM – The Netherlands’ centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte roundly saw off a challenge by anti-Islam, anti-EU Geert Wilders in an election on Wednesday, exit polls said, a huge relief to other EU governments facing a wave of nationalism.
Rutte’s VVD Party was projected to win 31 of parliament’s 150 seats, down from 41 at the last vote in 2012, but ahead of Wilders who tied in second place with two other parties at 19 each, according to the polls by national broadcaster NOS based on interviews with voters.
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, nativist path by voting for Wilders and his promise to “de-Islamicise” the Netherlands and quit the European Union.
In the city of Nijmegen, polling stations had to order extra ballot papers and extend opening times to give people enough time to vote.
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.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is set to make France’s presidential election run-off in May, while eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany is likely to enter the German federal parliament for the first time in a September election.
“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.
Nederland oh Nederland jij bent een kampioen!Wij houden van Oranje om zijn daden en zijn doen! Gefeliciteerd met dit geweldig resultaat!
— Peter Altmaier (@peteraltmaier) March 15, 2017
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, could not restrain his joy, tweeting: “The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands you are a champion!….. Congratulations on this great result.”
The exit polls helped the euro rise to its highest against the dollar since Feb. 7.
But Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the United States, said defeat for Wilders, who has been in parliament for 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.”
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 may take weeks or months for Rutte to negotiate a ruling coalition.
We hebben zetels gewonnen!
Eerste winst is binnen!
En Rutte is nog lang niet van mij af!!
— Geert Wilders (@geertwilderspvv) March 15, 2017
Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) 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, were way up.
Using a sports metaphor, Rutte had called the vote a European quarter-final, before a French semi-final and a German final, and warned voters that a Wilders victory would be “the wrong sort of populism winning the day”.