- - Wednesday, March 15, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party decisively beat back a challenge from anti-immigrant populist candidate Geert Wilders in the nation’s parliamentary elections Wednesday, exit polls showed, in a closely watched vote many saw as a key test of the appeal of Donald Trump-style populism in Western Europe.

With about half the vote counted, Mr. Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was projected to finish first with 32 seats, while Mr. Wilders‘ nationalist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) significantly trailed in third place with 19 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament. The CDA Christian Democrats were projected to win 20 seats.

Those numbers were consistent with exit polls earlier in the day, numbers that would leave the PVV with almost no hope of entering a governing coalition.

Meanwhile, the VVD’s former coalition partner, the leftist Labor Party, dropped 29 seats, from 38 to 9, an unprecedented loss in Dutch politics.

Mr. Rutte thus gets first crack at putting together a new governing coalition, though weeks of bargaining loom in a country with dozens of political parties.

While much of the world’s attention focused on Mr. Wilders‘ campaign — and its potential impact on looming votes in France and Germany — Wednesday’s biggest winner was the left-wing, pro-EU Greens, projected to triple their bloc in parliament to 12 seats.

Wilders could not win the election,” Martin Schulz, the candidate for the center-left Social Democrats in Germany’s election in September, said in a statement on Twitter. “I am relieved, but we need to continue to fight for an open and free Europe.”

Millions of Dutch flocked to the polls Wednesday — the highest turnout in 31 years at 82 percent, according to the Dutch pollster Ipsos — to cast their vote in an election that has been called a litmus test for support on the European Union and the tenor of rising populism on the continent.

Leaving the polls on Wednesday, Prime Minister Rutte had hoped such a turnout would flow in his favor as a signal to the world that the Netherlands is bucking the populist trend that led British voters to leave the European Union and American voters to elect President Trump in November.

“I’ve asked voters to take into consideration … after Brexit, after the American elections [that] populism could win the day,” Mr. Rutte said on Wednesday after casting his ballot.

“This is an evening where the Netherlands, after Brexit and Trump, said, ‘That’s enough of the wrong sort of populism.’”

The election was a closely watched one both home and abroad, almost entirely because Mr. Wilders‘ unabashed anti-Islamic rhetoric and threats of a Brexit-style referendum in the Netherlands brought him notoriety and surging poll numbers throughout much of the campaign. Until recently, pollsters predicted his party could take as many as 28 seats in the 150-seat parliament, perhaps claiming the largest single bloc in a Dutch legislature dependent on amenable coalition-building.

Despite the clear victory of Mr. Rutte and the VVD, the country’s short- and long-term political direction remain in doubt.

“At the moment the political scene is very much fragmented, and none of the parties will gain a clear majority over the others,” said

“At the moment the political scene is very much fragmented, and none of the parties will gain a clear majority over the others,” said Ingrid Habets, a senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels.

“The Dutch political scene would be in disarray — it’s unusual that a party who no one wants to work with wins the election,” she said.

The result was a mixed bag for Mr. Wilders and his Party for Freedom: Exit polls showed him gaining seats and votes compared to the last general election in 2012, but the bigger headline will be that the result fell far short of the expectations that he would challenge Mr. Rutte for the top spot.

Analysts said that a strong showing for Mr. Wilders would have provided a major boost to other populist, anti-immigrant parties on the continent who share his nationalist and anti-European Union sentiments, she added.

“It would also give fuel for [France‘s] National Front and [Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland] AfD to beef up their campaigns,” Ms

. Habets said before the votes were counted.

Mr. Wilders‘ outspokenness and flamboyant personal style appealed to a part of the electorate critical of increased immigration to the Netherlands from those fleeing war and instability in the Middle East. They fear an irreparable effect on Dutch culture.

Many compared his appeal on the stump to that of Mr. Trump, whose victory Mr. Wilders repeatedly celebrated.

“The Netherlands isn’t the Netherlands anymore,” said Greetje Ploeger, 72, a retiree from Oude Pekela, not far from the Dutch border with Germany.

She said she voted for the Party for Freedom and Mr. Wilders despite her reservations about Mr. Wilders himself.

“I’m not a fan of Geert Wilders, to be honest, but I think he’s someone who can put the Netherlands back on the right track,” she added.

Mr. Wilders, who referred to some Dutch Moroccans as “scum” at a campaign rally last month, subscribes to a right-wing ideology far more radical than that of most of his voters, analysts say.

That stance may hurt him after the paper ballots, a safeguard against Russian hackers, were counted Wednesday and it became clear Mr. Wilders would not be in the driver’s seat in the negotiations to come to form a coalition government. The other mainstream parties vowed not to work with the Party for Freedom, a stance that became easier to uphold given Wednesday’s results.

Geert Wilders is much more extreme than his voters,” said Adriaan Schout, a senior research fellow with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “He’s on the far end of the political spectrum — the other parties aren’t even looking at him at all. There’s just no possibility of forming a coalition with him.”

Any party with a plurality of votes will need to form a coalition with at least three parties to reach the 76 seats needed for a majority government, meaning that the results of Wednesday’s vote are only the prelude to a new political negotiation.

But Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD will be in a much stronger position given the party’s unexpectedly easy win and Mr. Wilders‘ weakened status.

Mr. Wilders claimed a kind of victory even before the results were released, with many of the mainstream parties moving closer to his hard line on immigration and other issues during the campaign.

“Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle,” he told reporters in The Hague after casting his ballot Wednesday morning, predicting the same feeling would show in elections later this year in France and Germany.

“Despite what the elite wants, politicians are getting strong who have a totally different concept of what the people want them to do,” Mr. Wilders said.

The normally mild-mannered, socially liberal Mr. Rutte took out a newspaper ad late last year telling the Dutch to “act normal or leave.” Critics saw the ad as a ploy to imitate Mr. Wilders‘ populist appeal and draw in fringe voters.

Wilders may lose this battle, but he’s already won the war,” said Joost van Spanje, an associate professor of political communications at the University of Amsterdam. “The mainstream parties basically adopt the policy positions of these anti-immigration parties.”

That’s a phenomenon that dismays some voters.

“We need to think about what kind of country we want to be rather than what we are or haven’t managed to become,” said Vincent Delaere, 32, a foreign embassy worker who supports the progressive D66 party.

“The overwhelming majority of people want to vote for a government that wants to move forward and isn’t frightened of the outside world.”

But Mr. Wilders, who, like Mr. Trump, has a penchant for colorful Twitter posts, was unbowed Wednesday evening.

Rutte has not seen the back of me!!” he tweeted after the exit poll results had sunk in.

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