Geert Wilders loss in Netherlands hailed by leaders as key moment for tolerant societies and serious politics on continent.
European governments facing a rising tide of populism heaved a collective sigh of relief after the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, swept aside the challenge of the anti-Islam, anti-EU, populist Geert Wilders in the parliamentary elections.
Angela Merkel was among many EU leaders to congratulate voters on what she called “a good day for democracy”. The German chancellor said she was “very glad”, as she thought many people were, “that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result”.
The French president, François Hollande, hailed “a clear victory against extremism”, while the EU commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke of a vote for “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe” that would be “an inspiration for many”.
With nearly all votes counted and no further significant changes expected, Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was assured of 33 MPs, by far the largest party in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, the national news agency ANP said.
Wilders’ Freedom party (PVV) looked certain to stay in second place but a long way behind – having won 20 seats – and only just ahead of the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the liberal-progressive party D66, which both ended third with 19 seats.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said Dutch voters had “made a show of responsibility and maturity ... in a key moment for Europe as a whole”. Denmark, Sweden and Norway said the country had opted for “serious politics”, “responsible leadership” and “a rejection of populism”.
After Britain’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US presidential elections, a first-place finish for Wilders, who had pledged to “de-Islamicise” the Netherlands and take the country out of the EU if he won, would have sent shockwaves across the continent in a potentially critical year.
In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has also pledged a referendum on EU membership, is expected to make the runoff round in presidential elections in May, while Germany’s Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is on target to win its first federal parliament seats later in the year.
The eyes of the world had been on the vote, Rutte told a cheering crowd of supporters at the VVD’s election night party. “This was an evening when … the Netherlands said ‘stop’ to the wrong sort of populism.”
The big winners were the pro-European leftwing ecologists, GroenLinks (GreenLeft), who leapt from four seats to 14 and could conceivably enter a ruling coalition. But the social democratic Labour party (PvdA), Rutte’s outgoing coalition partner, slumped from 38 seats to a historic low of nine.
Putting a brave face on his defeat, Wilders, who led the polls for nearly two years and was at one stage credited with a 25% share of the vote before slumping to barely half that figure on polling day, cracked open champagne to celebrate being the country’s second largest party.
“We would have preferred to be the first,” he conceded on Thursday, but added that the VVD had lost eight seats while he had gained five. “We are not a party that has lost,” he said. “We gained seats. And Rutte is certainly not rid of me yet.”
Although he ended up with fewer seats than his highest previous total, in 2010 – and met his third successive defeat at the hands of Rutte – the PVV leader might not be too downhearted. Outside government he will not have to compromise and can continue to drag the Dutch debate on to his chosen territory of immigration and integration. Rutte adopted some of Wilders’ rhetoric during the campaign, telling immigrants to respect Dutch norms and values “or leave”.
“Wilders did not want to enter government,” said André Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam’s Free University. “What he wanted, and he’s pretty much already achieved it, is for the two mainstream rightwing parties ... to say and do what he wants. In a sense, he had already won the elections.”
Rutte is now set to begin the often lengthy process of building a new coalition, most likely based around the VVD, CDA and D66 – a combination that falls five MPs short of a 76-seat majority, leaving him seeking a fourth coalition partner.
The leading party chiefs gathered for the first time at the Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament building, on Thursday to “give their opinions on how the new cabinet could be formed,” the parliamentary press office said.
Rutte, who like most party leaders has vowed not to work with the PVV in a coalition, said the process could take a long time and prove very complicated. “More so than usual. We are the largest party, but we are also the largest party with the second lowest number of seats in history,” he said.
Turnout was high at 80.2% in an election both Rutte and Wilders cast as a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of openness and centrist politics and opt instead for anti-immigration nationalism.
“The Dutch have woken up in a ‘normal’ country, as [the] prime minister, Mark Rutte, puts it,” the NRC newspaper wrote in its editorial. “There was no populist revolt.” But the paper added that despite its sound economic management, governing did not pay. “The outgoing coalition was punished, severely. Politics, it seems, is about more than the economy.”
The political commentator Roderick Veelo cautioned against assuming the populist far-right challenge was over. “Rutte is still standing, but so too is social discontent about uncontrolled immigration, failed integration and the power of Brussels,” he said. “That is not going away.”
Rutte was also thought to have benefited from his firm handling of a fierce row with Turkey over the Netherlands government’s refusal to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies of expats before a referendum next month on plans to grant Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sweeping new powers.
The diplomatic standoff did no harm, either, to Denk, a new party aimed mainly at the Turkish and Moroccan communities, which picked up three seats. Also faring well in the record line-up of 28 parties were the Party for the Animals, with five MPs, and the Eurosceptic Forum for Democracy, with two.
The Dutch news agency ANP said it expected no further changes to the outcome, with only a handful of municipalities still to finish counting. Official results will be published on 21 March.
Article by Jon Henley in The Hague