European governments heaved a collective sigh of relief after Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte swept aside the anti-Islam, anti-EU populist Geert Wilders in yesterday’s parliamentary elections.
German chancellor Angela Merkel was among many EU leaders to congratulate voters on what she called “a good day for democracy”.
French president François Hollande hailed “a clear victory against extremism” while 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 VVD party was assured of 33 MPs, by far the largest party in the 150-seat parliament.
Wilders’ PVV looked certain to stay in second place but a long way behind, having won 20 seats, only just ahead of the centre-right CDA and the liberal-progressive D66 parties, which both ended third with 19 seats.
Spanish 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 has also pledged a referendum on EU membership. She is expected to make the runoff round in presidential elections in May, while Germany’s anti-EU AfD party is on target to win its first 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 left-wing ecologists, GroenLinks (GreenLeft), who leapt from four seats to 14 and could enter a ruling coalition. Rutte’s current 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. “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, Wilders 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.
“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 right-wing parties … to say and do what he wants. In a sense, he had already won the elections.”
Political commentator Roderick Veelo cautioned against assuming the 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 sweeping new powers to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.