Provisional results from the Netherlands election say Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party has won the most seats in parliament, defeating that of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam nationalist Geert Wilders by a larger margin than expected.
With more than half the votes counted so far, Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is expected to take 32 of 150 seats, far ahead of any other party.
Three parties are expected to win 19 seats each, including Wilders’ anti-immigration Freedom Party, as well as the Christian Democrats and the D66.
The final makeup of parliament will be announced with the official results March 21.
Officials say voter turnout was the highest in three decades, at 81 percent.
'Wrong kind of populists'
Andre Krouwel, associate professor in comparative politics at the Free University in Amsterdam, says the turnout shows that Dutch citizens saw the vote as very important.
“It was, I think, a very exciting race because for a long time it looked like Geert Wilders would be the largest party, and I think that mobilized a lot of people,” he told VOA.
But Krouwel said even with Rutte’s party winning the most seats, gains by Wilders’ party took away seats from natural coalition partners, so forming a government will be more complex than in the past.
“Usually, you can easily form a three-party coalition. Now, you’ll need at least four and maybe five parties, so that is a complicated situation,” he said.
Those negotiations could take months, and the largest parties have all indicated they will not be working with Wilders.
Rutte, poised for a third term as prime minister, called the results “a celebration of democracy.” He said the Netherlands has said no to the “wrong kind of populists.”
Rutte may have profited from the hard line he drew in a diplomatic standoff with Turkey over the past week.
The fight erupted over the Netherlands’ refusal to let two Turkish government ministers address rallies in Rotterdam about a referendum that could give Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. It gave Rutte an opportunity to show his statesmanship by refusing to bow to foreign pressure, a stance with widespread backing in the nation.
But Wilders, lately seen as a much bigger threat to Rutte than he turned out to be, has warned that the prime minister “has not seen the last of me!” He also expressed his satisfaction that at least his party had gained seats.
Europeans relieved, cheered
Various European leaders are voicing their approval of the outcome.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Rutte by phone, while French President Francois Hollande released a statement praising “the values of openness, respect for others, and a faith in Europe’s future” as the only true responses to nationalism and isolationism. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel took to social media to tweet his support.
Wilders’ run was seen as the latest test of a wave of populism to sweep across Europe, extending as far as the United States across the Atlantic Ocean. After Britain sent shock waves across Europe by voting to leave the EU, Wilders’ climb to prominence was seen as further warning that cooperation among European nations could be threatened.
A number of parties are represented in the Dutch parliament, so no matter which party wins the most seats, a coalition is needed to form the next government. Those negotiations could take months, and the largest parties have all indicated they will not be working with Wilders.
Wilders campaigned on pledges of banning Muslim immigrants, closing mosques, prohibiting the sales of the Quran and a desire to withdraw from the European Union.
In a subplot of the elections, the Green Left party registered a historic victory, turning it into the largest party on the left wing of Dutch politics, together with the Socialist Party.
The provisional results showed the Greens leaping from four seats to 14 in Parliament after a strong campaign by charismatic leader Jesse Klaver, who invites comparisons to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Dutch vote will be followed by two others this year in Europe that feature prominent right-wing nationalist figures. France picks its new president in April, while Germany holds elections in September.
Reuters contributed to this report.