15/03/2017 3:49 PM IST | Updated 16/03/2017 9:03 AM IST

Dutch Vote In Elections As The Far Right Eyes Big Gains

The Netherlands’ incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte will win the Dutch election, preliminary results indicate, dealing a decisive blow to the far right Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders

Two exit polls released at the end of a long election day predict Rutte’s VVD is expected to remain the Netherlands’ biggest political party, more than 10 seats ahead of the Party for Freedom.

“It appears that the VVD will be the biggest party in the Netherlands for the third time in a row,” Rutte told supporters in the Hague. “It is also an evening in which the Netherlands after Brexit, after the American elections said stop to the wrong kind of populism.”

Two exit polls predict the VVD of will end up with 31 of 150 seats in Parliament, 10 seats less than it currently holds. Three parties are expected to come in next with 19 seats ― the far-right Party of Freedom, the Christian-Democrats of the CDA and the progressive D66 Party. The labor-oriented PvdA suffered a historic defeat and is set to lose up to 29 seats. The GreenLeft party is set to book some of the largest gains in the vote, up over 10 seats from the previous election. 

Michael Kooren/Reuters
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD waves after voting in the general election.

Millions of Dutch lined up on Wednesday to elect a new government as the rest of Europe watched anxiously to see whether the party of Wilders, the flamboyant far-right leader known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric, would become the largest. 

While Wilders’ party is set to gain a few new seats in Parliament, leaders in the Netherlands and across Europe expressed relief there appeared to be a ceiling to the far right’s rise.

Wilders responded to the results of the first exit poll on Twitter and thanked his voters for their support. “Rutte isn’t rid of me yet,” he added.  

Turnout at the polls was 81 percent, significantly higher than in the previous election. In the capital, Amsterdam, so many people headed to the polls that the city had to print extra ballots. Officials in several polling stations posted photos of ballot boxes filled to the brim. 

Rutte and Wilders were among the first to cast their vote on Wednesday. 

Wilders had dominated opinion polls for months, even though the race tightened in the weeks leading up to the vote. A staple of the Dutch political landscape for decades, he was convicted late last year of inciting hatred against immigrants and has promised voters to “make the Netherlands ours again” by restricting immigration, “de-Islamizing” the country and withdrawing from the European Union.

The prime minister had reminded voters during live debates on Monday and Tuesday that the country has a growing economy and criticized Wilders’ single-page political program for containing few solutions.

Wilders argued his platform in typical fashion, attacking the ruling party in an appeal to voters who fear that immigrants threaten the Dutch welfare system.

Wendy de Graaf, a voter in The Hague, said Wednesday morning that she was voting for Wilders despite some of his controversial statements. “I don’t agree with everything he says... [but] I feel that immigration is a problem,” she said.

REMKO DE WAAL via Getty Images
There were long lines at polling places across the Netherlands.

Around half of the country’s voters were still undecided at the beginning of the week. ProDemos, an organization running an online survey to help voters determine which party they align with most closely, said the tool was used between 600,000 and 700,000 times on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning ― this despite being offline for some time because of a cyberattack. The tool was used more than 6.3 million times in total during the campaign. 

diplomatic spat with Turkey over the weekend made the election even more heated. “I think Rutte did well this weekend with the Turkey row,” Dave Cho, a longtime VVD supporter, told Reuters on Wednesday. 

JOHN THYS via Getty Images
People queue to cast their vote for the general elections in The Hague. 

The left-wing PvdA party, which suffered the biggest loss of the election, had launched a last-minute Twitter campaign on Wednesday aimed at undecided voters. While the hashtag #tochmaarPvdA or #PvdAafterall briefly trended Wednesday morning, the final results were disappointing. “It’s a painful defeat, a big loss,” Hans Spekman of the PvdA said.

ROB ENGELAAR via Getty Images
A woman walks past a windmill as voters participate in the Dutch general elections.

With several political parties set to win a large number of seats, the Netherlands now appears to be headed for complex coalition negotiations. 

It is unlikely that Wilders’ Party for Freedom will ultimately join the coalition, despite winning a significant number of seats. While other parties’ leaders have been reluctant to speculate about possible coalitions, most appeared united on one front: They won’t rule with Wilders.

But Wilders’ campaign has been successful, whether or not he joins the government. Immigration and Islam, two of his top concerns for decades, were some of the main talking points of the election.

In an effort to undercut Wilders’ appeal, several leading parties have moved their platform to the right when it comes to immigration and integration. Rutte, for example, said in an open letter in January that he believes people who don’t respect Dutch customs need to “behave normally or go away.”

EMMANUEL DUNAND via Getty Images
People stand in front of electoral lists as people vote in the Dutch general elections in The Hague on March 15, 2017.

After Donald Trump’s presidential win in the U.S. and the victory of the Brexit camp in Britain last year, the world saw Wilders’ performance in the Dutch election as an indication of whether Europe is headed toward a more nationalistic future. Far-right populist parties have long been promoting the idea that their time has come, and the Dutch election was the first big test of 2017 for Europe’s right-wing populist movement. 

Polls show that France’s far-right National Front party is on track to perform well in that country’s election next month. And in Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland is challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.

“This year is not only about the election in the Netherlands but elections in the whole of Europe,” Jesse Klaver, the candidate for the GreenLeft party, said Sunday.

Several European leaders expressed relief after the exit polls made clear Wilders would not take home a total victory.

“A large majority of Dutch voters have rejected European populists. That’s good news” the German Foreign Office tweeted. 

“I’m relieved, but we need to keep fighting for an open and free Europe,” said Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament.