Story highlights

Far-right populist Geert Wilders was soundly beaten, with PM Rutte claiming victory

Election was closely watched by European leaders, nervous about anti-EU sentiment

The Hague, the Netherlands CNN  — 

Far-right populism in Europe failed its first test of 2017 when the nationalist firebrand Geert Wilders came a distant second in the closely-watched Dutch election.

Conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte claimed victory in The Hague Wednesday night, amid wild cheering and whistling from his jubilant supporters.

“This night is a night for the Netherlands – after Brexit, after the American elections – where we said stop it, stop it to the wrong kind of populism,” he said.

Turnout was 81%, according to state broadcaster NOS, the highest in three decades. Long lines formed at some polling stations as voters turned out in droves.

The election was widely seen as a test of populist right-wing sentiment in Europe, ahead of the French presidential vote in April and the German national election in September.

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00:10 - Source: CNN

With 94% of the votes counted, Rutte’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the VVD, was projected to win 33 seats in the national parliament out of a total of 150. Wilders’ Freedom Party, the PVV, was on course to win 20 seats, only one more than the mainstream Christian Democratic Appeal and D66 parties.

Rutte’s party, which lurched to the right in response to the populist wave, won eight fewer seats than in 2012, but the VVD’s success staving off the challenge from Wilders was celebrated as a victory.

Wilders, who is staunchly against mass immigration and the European Union, was defiant, claiming he was “part of the winners.”

“Rutte uses terrifying words when he says that the elections have put a halt to the wrong type of populist … (He) has not got rid of me yet,” he said.

Relief in Europe

During his speech to supporters, Rutte said many European leaders had already called to congratulate him on his victory.