THE HAGUE — Dutch voters, turning out in heavy numbers, on Wednesday rejected the far-right candidacy of Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, an outcome that could embolden liberals and signal the fade of populist movements in Europe.
Results in the Netherlands’ nationwide election showed residents of one of the founding countries of the European Union and euro single currency zone had opted to prolong a government led by Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who appealed to the Dutch to send a signal around the world that political populism had reached its end.
After more than 95 percent of the votes were counted, Mark Rutte’s Liberals party was set to receive 33 seats out of a total 150 in the Lower House, according to Dutch news agency ANP, which collects the figures from all municipalities. The Liberals won 41 seats in 2012.
Geert Wilders’ far-right Party is expected to win 20 seats, up five from the previous result, coming in second. Prime Minister Rutte’s coalition partner Labour is suffering heavy losses, only grabbing 9 mandates compared with 38 in 2012.
“Rutte has not seen the last of me.”
Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats are seen winning 19 seats each, but they could still go up one seat, depending on the final count. GreenLeft and the Socialist Party will receive 14 each.
Six other parties will each win between two and five seats. The final results could slightly deviate, depending on the remaining counts and the number of so-called undistributed seats.
The turnout is expected to be 77.7 percent of 13 million eligible voters, news agenc ANP said, compared with 74.6 percent in 2012.
The euro hit a five week high amid relief that Mr. Wilders, who had campaigned on a strongly anti-E.U. platform, had not won as many seats as many had feared.
Mr. Wilders seemed to acknowledge his failed bid for power. He noted that the Freedom Party had taken four or five more seats in the lower house than in 2012.
“I admit I would rather have stood in Mr. Rutte’s shoes and won 30 seats,” Mr. Wilders told reporters in The Hague. “At the same time, we are one of the winners, grabbing four more seats than previously.”
The Freedom Party was open to coalition talks if approached, but if not, it would be “a strong opposition party,” Mr. Wilders said.
“The patriotic spring is continuing and will go forward in Europe,” he said, referring to a meeting he had with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in January. At the time, anti-E.U. parties said they would bring about an anti-establishment, nationalistic change in Europe as seen in Britain and the United States.
At the Liberals Party event in The Hague, a sense of relief permeated the room as the nation’s political ruling class realized that its hold on power was unbroken.
“What a night,” was the opening line from a beaming Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, who almost seemed surprised by the strong showing of his Liberals when he addressed the party faithful late in the evening.
Mr. Rutte called the victory – the third election in a row where his Liberals became the strongest party – “a celebration of democracy” and said the result showed that the Liberals’ message to keep a steady course and keep the Netherlands safe, stable and prosperous had been heard across the country.
“This is also a night – we can see this all over Europe, I have received many calls from European colleagues – that the Netherlands, after Brexit and after the U.S. election, said ‘Stop’ to the wrong kind of populism,” Mr. Rutte told his party, which erupted in loud cheers following this statement.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those who called Mr. Rutte to congratulate him, according to her spokesperson. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also welcomed the early returns, saying it was a victory for Europe.
It was a good sign that a far-right candidate like Mr. Wilders did not win, and it could be an encouraging development ahead of France’s elections in April and May, Mr. Gabriel told fellow Social Democrats at a meeting in Wolfenbüttel in northern Germany.
Support for the Dutch Labor Party, Mr. Rutte's current coalition partner, fell dramatically, and he will be forced to build a broader, more multi-party coalition to continue in power.
Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for chancellor, said the rejection of Mr. Wilders showed an overwhelming majority of Dutch voters had repudiated the “hate speech of Geert Wilders and his unspeakable attitudes toward entire ethnic groups. That is good news for Europe and for the Netherlands,” Mr. Schulz said.
Manfred Weber, a member of the Christian Social Union party from Bavaria, said exit polls suggested that anti-Europeans had been dealt a stinging blow in the Netherlands. “The serious politics of civil resistance have paid off in the Netherlands,” Mr. Weber, the head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, told DPA. “That’s good news for all political forces of the middle and for Europe.”
The strategy of isolating Mr. Wilders and his radical philosophy had paid off, Mr. Weber said.
Kees Aarts, a professor of political institutions and behavior at the University of Groningen, told Handelsblatt Global that the Dutch election showed that the populist wave may be starting to peter out in Europe.
“The results show that the emergence of populist movements – after Brexit and after Donald Trump’s election – is not unstoppable,” Mr. Aarts said.
Video: Dutch voters rejected the far-right candidate and – for now – halted the European populist wave.
Mr. Rutte benefited from the diplomatic spat with Turkey over the weekend, when he banned Turkish government ministers from campaigning before expat voters in the Netherlands, Mr. Aarts said. The ban prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accuse the Netherlands of using “fascist” and Nazi-like tactics, which was roundly condemned by the Dutch.
“Another factor that likely played a roll is that Mr. Wilders’ campaign themes are no longer his exclusive domain. In a way, the Liberals have co-opted his isssues, adopting them with a different spin. Mr. Rutte’s ”Act normal or leave” campaign slogan was an example,” Mr. Aarts said.
The clear win for pro-European parties Christian Democrats, Liberal Democrats D66 and GreenLeft was also a strong expression of Dutch trust in the European Union, the professor said.
“There had been talk of a Nexit – the Netherlands leaving the E.U. or euro zone – but there is now clear support for Europe,” Mr. Aarts said.
The results were a blow to Mr. Wilders’ 11-year-old anti-immigrant, anti E.U. party, and perhaps a warning for populist candidates such as Marine Le Pen in France and the Alternative for Germany party about their chances in elections later this year.
Mr. Wilders ran on a platform of taking the Netherlands, a country of 17 million, out of the European Union and the euro currency. He also seized on voter discontent over immigration, proposing to ban Muslim immigrants and refugees from war-torn areas.
Mr. Rutte and the Dutch political elite dismissed the 53-year-old Mr. Wilders as a loose cannon who would bring embarrassment and isolation to the Netherlands, but parts of the Dutch working class embraced him, and early returns showed he was riding a wave of rural support.
Early analysis of the Dutch results suggested that Mr. Wilders’ candidacy served as a catalyst to rally his opponents, with moderates, Greens and special-issue parties scoring big gains compared to 2012. Support for the Dutch Labor Party, Mr. Rutte’s current coalition partner, fell dramatically, and he will be forced to build a broader, more multi-party coalition to continue in power.
The pro-Europe party Green Left was the biggest winner, grabbing 14 seats, compared with just four in 2012. The Dutch Party for Animals and senior citizen party 50Plus were also gainers, winning five and four seats respectively.
The Freedom Party’s 20 seats won’t be enough to enter the ruling coalition, and all major political parties in the Netherlands had pledged to keep them from power. Nevertheless, Mr. Wilders’ brand of populist conservatism and nationalism, which predated the rise of the Brexit movement in Britain and the U.S. candidacy of Donald Trump, fell on friendly ears among a swath of Dutch voters.
Mr. Wilders’ Freedom Party is expected to double down on its anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic rhetoric ahead of France’s elections in April and May, and Germany’s election on September 24. But in the Netherlands, he will once again be kept far from political power, relegated to the reach of his bully pulpit, where he has proven effective at grabbing headlines, if not votes.
Turnout was heavy today compared to the last Dutch national election in 2012, and extra paper ballots had to be sent to some polling stations to handle the demand. Dutch voters interviewed on Wednesday said they were split over the 28 parties listed on their lengthy national ballots.
Rudy, a 57-year-old guitarist who declined to give his last name, said he didn’t vote for Mr. Wilders but wouldn’t say who he voted for.
“That’s nobody’s business. All I can say is: certainly not Geert Wilders, because he’s dividing our country and breaking it apart,” Rudy said as he polished his house boat after voting in Amsterdam. If Mr. Wilders manages to pull out an upset victory and take power, Rudy said he had a contingency plan.
“Good thing I live on a boat, then I can leave Holland if he wins and it won’t be so bad,” he said.
And yet, interviewed on his way to vote this morning in The Hague, Mr. Wilders, a 53-year-old former member of the Utrecht city council, said he’d already won, because his anti-Islamic agenda had largely defined the Dutch election debate. Mr. Wilders in the past has compared The Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has proposed the Netherlands ban the construction of mosques.
“We have made our mark on this election,” Mr. Wilders said shortly before voting. “Everyone is speaking about our topics.”
Gilbert Kreijger is an editor at Handelsblatt Global in Berlin and a Dutch native. Kevin O’Brien is editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Mathias Brüggemann, a Handelsblatt international editor, and Christopher Cermak of Handelsblatt Global also contributed to this article. To reach them: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org