PM Rutte headed for big win over Wilders in Dutch elections

Partial vote counts on Thursday show Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte easily defeating a strong challenge by far-right rival Geert Wilders. Many relieved European leaders have dubbed it as a "vote against extremists".

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The election was a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of liberalism and choose a nationalist.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was on course for a comfortable win over far-right rival Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections, initial results indicated.

With more than 54 percent of votes counted, Rutte's Liberal VVD party was 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 on Thursday, with the stakes high in an election pitting the pro-European Rutte against his anti-immigration and anti-EU rival.

Following last year's shock Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's victory in the US, the Dutch vote was being closely scrutinised as a gauge of the rise of populism on the continent ahead of crucial elections in France and Germany.

"This was the evening when The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," Rutte told his supporters.

Now of course it's important to unite the country in the coming weeks and months and that we succeed in forming a stable government for the next four years - Mark Rutte

Wilders said that he had not achieved the electoral victory he had hoped for and was ready to offer 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," he said.

Wilders has repeatedly said he believes he is on a mission to halt "the Islamisation" of the West. [AFP]

Vote against populism?

Relieved European leaders, fearing the rise of anti-EU sentiment in one of the bloc's founding members, congratulated Rutte, now headed for a third term at the head of the one the eurozone's largest economies.

A spokesman for EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker hailed it as a "vote against extremists".

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France, where the far-right Marine Le Pen is currently seen winning the first round of the presidential election in April, congratulated Rutte for "stopping the rise of the far-right".

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."

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

"He does not represent a populist wave. 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."

TRT World's Simon McGregor-Wood has more details from the Hague.

TRTWorld and agencies