Story highlights

PM's party in the lead in Dutch broadcaster's according to preliminary results

'This is a night for the Netherlands,' Rutte says

The Hague, Netherlands CNN  — 

Conservative Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has staved off a challenge from his far-right rival in an election widely seen as an indicator of populist sentiment in Europe, preliminary results indicated Wednesday.

The anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, who had promised to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, was on course for a poorer than expected performance.

With more than half the votes counted, preliminary results showed Wilders tied for second place with two other parties, the mainstream Christian Democratic Appeal and D66. Rutte’s VVD party is projected to win 32 seats out of a total of 150.

The left-wing environmentalist GroenLinks (Green Left) party also appears likely to make big gains, while the PVDA (Labour) party, Rutte’s outgoing partners in a coalition, were on course for a historic defeat.

Turnout was 81%, a NOS exit poll said, the highest for three decades.

Wilders tweeted: “PVV voters thanks. We won seats, first victory is in. Rutte hasn’t got rid of me yet.”

“This is a night for the Netherlands,” Rutte told crowds of supporters after the exit polls were released. “After Brexit, after the US election, we said ‘stop it, stop it’ to the wrong kind of populism.”

Relief in Europe

The vote was the first of three elections this year in Europe in which populist, right-wing candidates were hoping for mainstream electoral breakthroughs. In April’s French presidential election, National Front leader Marine le Pen is expected to make it to the runoff vote. In German elections in September the euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party is expected win its first seats in the federal parliament.

There was relief in mainstream European governments at the Dutch result. “Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti-European populists. That’s good news,” the German Foreign Ministry tweeted.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentilioni tweeted his approval: “The anti-EU right has lost the election in the Netherlands. All together for change and revive the (European) Union.”

Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte celebrates after exit polls put him in first place.

“Congratulations to the Dutch for preventing the rise of the far right,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Twitter.

The Dutch Labour party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher, acknowledged its poor performance. “Today we share sadness,” he said, addressing a large crowd. “Sadness about a disappointing dramatic result, but please never forget our ideals are worthwhile,” he said. “Social democracy will come back. We will start building today.”

Coalition talks will begin once the results are confirmed. Due to the Netherlands’ fractured political system, it could take weeks for a new government to emerge.

Test of populism

The vote was widely seen as a test of populism in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum vote in the UK.

Controversial anti-immigrant, anti-European Union figure Wilders had run on a “de-Islamification” platform, calling for Islamic schools to be closed and the Quran and burqa to be banned.

That message struck a chord with many ordinary Dutch voters who have been hard hit by the government’s austerity measures, and who feel the country has taken in too many refugees and migrants.

“The Netherlands is full,” Wilders supporter Jack told CNN outside a polling station in Volendam on Wednesday. “If it were up to me I would have stopped all [Turkish people] at the border.”