Dutch leader appears to win election, dealing blow to far-right’s Wilders

March 15 (UPI) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party claimed victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election, while the far-right nationalist party of Geert Wilders failed to make substantial gains, exit polls showed.

While the official results have not been certified, a leading exit poll showed Rutte’s Freedom and Democracy Party, known by the Dutch acronym VVD, won a plurality of seats and leads all parties with a projected 31 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament. Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom, or PVV, was tied for second, with 19 seats.

The VVD will need to enter a coalition government with four or more other parties to establish a governing majority, though it is unlikely Wilders’ party will be part of the leadership coalition. All the other major political parties pledged prior to the election they would not partner with the PVV.

Though it failed to post major gains, the PVV did add to its number of seats and Rutte’s VVD slipped some, though it still has a comfortable lead.

The election was closely watched across Europe as the first major test of the continent’s perceived wave of far-right populism most embodied by the Brexit referendum last year that saw Britons vote to leave the European Union over is lenient immigration policies.

Wilders had promised during the campaign to follow suit, remove the Netherlands from the EU and “de-Islamize” the country.

Rutte’s party moved farther to the right on immigration but did not embrace the heated, borderline racist statements embraced by Wilders.

“Our message to the Netherlands worked. We want to continue keeping the country safe and stable in the coming years,” Rutte told supporters at a post-election party in The Hague. “We’re hearing the message from all across Europe: the Netherlands stopped the wrong sort of populism.”

Though his party failed to win control of government, Wilders still celebrated an increase in the number of seats.

“We won seats! We’ve passed the first hurdle! Rutte is not rid of me yet!” he tweeted.

The biggest winner was the far-left Green Leaf Party, which quadrupled its number of seats to 16.

The result was met with a sign of relief in capitals across Europe, where leaders had hoped to avoid a repeat of the Brexit stunner.

“Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti European populists. That’s good news,” the German Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the vote.

French and Italian leaders echoed those sentiments.

“Congratulations to the Netherlands for having halted the advance of the far right,” tweeted Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said: “the anti-EU right lost the elections in the Netherlands. Now for common engagement to change and relaunch the Union.”

Wednesday’s vote, which saw the highest turnout in the Netherlands in 30 years, will not be the final test for populists this year. Far-right politician Marine Le Pen is expected to make the second round of runoff elections for the French presidency. She has run on a harsh anti-immigration platform. And in Germany’s elections later this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to prevail, but a far-right party is expected to win parliamentary seats for the first time in its history.

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