Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party appears before his supporters in The Hague, Netherlands, March 15, 2017.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party appears before his supporters in The Hague, Netherlands, March 15, 2017.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte easily defeated a challenge by far-right rival Geert Wilders in key elections Wednesday in the Netherlands.

With more than 60 percent of votes counted, Rutte's Liberal VVD party is set to win 32 seats, making it the largest in the new 150-seat parliament, with Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) beaten into second place alongside two others on 19 seats.

Millions of Dutch flocked to the polls in a near-record turnout, with the stakes high in an election pitting the pro-European Rutte against his anti-immigration and anti-EU rival. The vote was seen as a further test of rising right-wing populism in Europe.

For an update on the result, TRT World spoke to Catherine de Vries, Professor of Government at the University of Essex.

Europe congratulates Rutte

Some European leaders were quick to congratulate Rutte.

French President Francois Hollande said Rutte's win was a victory against extremism.

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."

France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault tweeted, "Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far-right."

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.

TRT World's Simon McGregor-Wood filed this report from the Liberal VVD party's headquarters in The Hague.

Wilders offers to work with new government

Eyeing weeks, if not months, of protracted coalition talks ahead, Wilders offered early on Thursday to work with the new government.

"I would still like to co-govern as the PVV, if possible. But if that doesn't work ... we'll support the cabinet, where needed, on the issues that are important to us."

He also said he had not achieved the electoral victory he had hoped for and was ready to offer a tough opposition.

"I would rather have been the largest party ... but we are not a party that has lost. We gained seats. That's a result to be proud of," Wilder told journalists.

Most of the other leaders, including Rutte have vowed not to work with Wilders, denouncing his incendiary rhetoric and his go-it-alone attitude.

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

Source: TRTWorld and agencies