Jubilant caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte has called for the rapid negotiation of a new Dutch coalition government after a general election that confirmed the dominance of his Liberal Party – and saw Geert Wilders's far-right Freedom Party trounced by pro-European D66.
Although coalition talks typically take months in the Netherlands, Mr Rutte – prime minister since 2010 – said the national post-election priorities would be to prevent a third wave of coronavirus and to rebuild an economy battered by 12 months of lockdown.
Acknowledging the threat posed by the latest spike in the virus, which has already killed some 16,000 people, with a current weekly increase of 25 per cent in new cases, he warned: “The challenges facing us are enormous. We need to lead the country out of this crisis.”
Despite a low-key election campaign and opinion polls forecasting the solid lead for the right-leaning Liberals, also known as the VVD, the turnout during three days of voting showed a hugely engaged electorate. At a record 82.6 per cent, it was the highest in 37 years.
Apart from the Mr Rutte's party, which gained two seats to take 35 of the 150 seats in parliament, the other big winners were coalition partners D66, whose new leader, former diplomat Sigrid Kaag, saw the party's support leap from 19 seats in 2017 to 24, almost 15 per cent of the vote.
As D66 edged ahead of the anti-EU anti-immigrant Freedom Party, forcing it into third place, a beaming Ms Kaag – who was photographed dancing on a table as the results emerged – declared: “This is proof that Dutch people are not extreme, they are moderate.”
An uncharacteristically media-shy Mr Wilders – who also saw a stronger-than-expected challenge from fellow right-winger Thierry Baudet's Forum for Democracy – tweeted: "We'll lead the opposition very hard against Rutte and Kaag. It will be badly needed."
Ironically, the other significant losers of the election were the Christian Democrats who saw their seats reduced from 19 to 14 despite the fact that it was one of their MPs, Pieter Omtzigt, who did most to uncover the child benefits scandal that brought down the Rutte coalition in January.
Even so, the likely outcome must be a new four-party coalition akin to, if not identical to, the very government that was forced out of office a matter of weeks ago.
Ms Kaag will be expecting ministerial portfolios and a say in policy that befits D66’s new status.
Wopke Hoekstra, leader of the Christian Democrats and outgoing finance minister, faces swallowing that demotion and perhaps losing his sought-after ministry.
Junior coalition partners Christian Union, which held its five seats in the end, may see its conservative social agenda at risk from progressive D66.
If that turns out to be the case, another coalition scenario sees Christian Union being replaced in government by Labour, languishing on nine seats since its worst performance ever in 2017.
As a signal of intent, party leaders met immediately on Thursday afternoon with two MPs, one each from the Liberals and D66, to act as “sherpas” in examining the coalition options.