Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s party first in election – exit poll
Liberals to win 31 seats, while far-right candidate Geert Wilders’s to win 19 seats
Mark Rutte’s VVD Party won the most seats in parliamentary elections. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
The Dutch electorate has rejected the “Patriotic Spring” promised by far-right leader, Geert Wilders, and has decisively returned outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte and confirmed his Liberals as the country’s largest party, according to an early exit poll by the national broadcaster Wednesday night as polling stations closed.
The result means that far from becoming the first European country to embrace populism in the 2017 election cycle, the Netherlands is on course to reject it, with Mr Wilders’ Freedom party being consigned to joint second place.
Minutes after the polls closed on this rancorous election campaign, the exit poll by broadcaster NOS showed that the Liberals had raced ahead to win 31 seats in the 150-seat parliament – 10 fewer than in 2012, but a substantially better performance than expected.
That puts Mr Rutte’s party fully 12 seats ahead of their nearest rivals, the Freedom Party, the Christian Democrats and D66, all bunched on 19 seats each.
Bitter campaignThe bitterly fought election yesterday was being watched closely across Europe – particularly in Paris and Berlin, which face their own elections later this year – for any indication of a popular backlash of the kind that swept Donald Trump into the White House and the UK out of the EU.
However, after months of proclaiming that Europe was facing a rolling revival of populism in the Netherlands, to be followed soon by France and Germany, Mr Wilders could manage to add only four seats to his 2012 total of 15, putting him on a par with the Christian Democrats and D66.
That is a catastrophic showing in particular for Mr Wilders, who had cast himself, along with Marine Le Pen, as a leader of the new European Right.
After opinion polls in the US and the UK miscalled the presidential election and the Brexit referendum, sampling here appears to have accurately reflected an early lead for Mr Wilders followed by a gradual resurgence for Mr Rutte, consolidated by the recent diplomatic row with Turkey.
Mr Rutte also pointed to the economic recovery overseen by his Liberal-Labour coalition government – and warned that if the country swung to the right, that recovery would be put at risk.
Domino effectAs opinion polls showed Mr Wilders’s early lead receding and the Liberal party gaining a more substantial lead, Mr Rutte repeatedly appealed to the electorate not to let the Netherlands become the first European “domino” to fall to populism.
In the event, the electorate responded with an 82 per cent turnout – the highest in 31 years.
Of the other parties, GreenLeft performed well with 16 seats, according to the exit poll, with the Socialists on 14.
And apart from Mr Wilders, the other big losers are the junior coalition partners, Labour, who seem set to win a historically low total of nine seats – down from 38 in 2012.
Although Dutch governments can take weeks or even months to form, initial contacts are expected to begin immediately, with a five-party coalition comprising the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, D66, GreenLeft, and perhaps even Labour again, looking the most likely outcome at this early stage.
This is the third rejection of Mr Wilders by the Dutch electorate in recent years.
In 2012, he dropped nine seats to 15, coming third with just 10 per cent of the vote compared to 27 per cent for Mr Rutte.
In the European elections in 2014, he also took third despite campaigning against “the Brussels monster”.
Final debateThe final campaigning took place on Tuesday evening when the leaders of all but one of the parties in the outgoing parliament, including Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders, took part in a final TV debate watched by 3.3 million viewers, roughly twice as many as in 2010.
As polling stations around the country opened yesterday, Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders were among the first to vote in The Hague.
Mr Rutte warned that victory for the Freedom Party leader would have a negative impact far beyond the Netherlands.
“The rest of the world will see that after Brexit, after the American elections, the wrong sort of populism has again won the day.”
Voting at a school on the outskirts of the city early in the day, Mr Wilders commented: “Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle, and this patriotic revolution – whether today or tomorrow – will take place.”
Later, Mr Wilders tweeted: “We won seats! The first victory is in! And Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!!”