Dutch PM Mark Rutte claims 3rd term with win over 'wrong kind of populism'

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Wednesday was moving toward a dominating parliamentary election victory over anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, who looked like he failed the year's first litmus test for populism in Europe.

'Rutte has not seen the back of me!!' Anti-Islam lawmaker Wilders says on Twitter

Mark Rutte, first elected in late 2010, said his most high-profile opponent was offering the 'wrong kind of populism.' (Patrick Post/Associated Press)

Dutch centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte scored a resounding victory over anti-Islam and anti-EU Geert Wilders in an election on Wednesday, offering huge relief to other governments across Europe facing a wave of nationalism.

Rutte declared it an "evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism."

"We want to stick to the course we have — safe and stable and prosperous," Rutte added.

With around 95 per cent of votes counted, Rutte's VVD Party won 33 of parliament's 150 seats, down from 41 at the last vote in 2012. Wilders was second with 20, the CDA and centrist Democrats 66 tied for third with 19 each, data provided by the ANP news agency showed.

The Labour Party of Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a coalition partner for Rutte, suffered its worst ever result. Labour won just nine seats, down from 38 last time.

The prime minister will likely have to look to the right, then, for new coalition partners.

Defeat of the 'Dutch Trump'

The National

4 years ago
Although populist politician Geert Wilders didn't win much support in the recent election in the Netherlands, similar anti-immigration and anti-Muslim candidates are expected to do well in countries like France 4:43

Rutte has been resolute about not wanting to share power with Wilders, so that tightens the market in which he can acquire the necessary 75-seat threshold.

Rutte received congratulations from several European leaders, and the euro rose to its highest against the dollar since Feb. 7 on the expectation of his victory.

Turkish factor

At 78 per cent, turnout was the highest in a decade in an election that was a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of liberalism and choose a nationalist, anti-immigrant path by voting for Wilders and his promise to "de-Islamicise" the Netherlands and quit the European Union.

Wilders promised to close borders to migrants from Muslim nations, close mosques and ban the Qur'an. He suggested Wednesday the kind of populist politics he and others in Europe represent aren't going away.

Ballot papers are sorted and hand counted at the mayor's office in The Hague, Netherlands on Wednesday. The election drew significant turnout and international attention. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

"Rutte has not seen the back of me," Wilders said after the results had sunk in.

Rutte, who for much of the campaign appeared to be racing to keep pace with Wilders, may have profited from the hard line he drew in a diplomatic standoff with Turkey over the past week.

The fight erupted over the Netherlands' refusal to let two Turkish government ministers address rallies in Rotterdam about a referendum that could give Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. It gave Rutte an opportunity to show his statesmanship by refusing to bow to foreign pressure, a stance with widespread backing in the nation.

"I mean this is your electoral campaign dream, right? You can't script this if it was a movie," Amsterdam Free University political scientist Andre Krouwel said. "It's really helped Mark Rutte to take the lead and a big lead over Geert Wilders."

French result could be 'bellwether' on populism

Both France and Germany have elections this year in which far-right candidates and parties are hoping to make an impact.

French President François Hollande congratulated Rutte on his election success and his "clear victory against extremism."

In Germany, Socialist leader Martin Schulz tweeted. "I am relieved, but we need to continue to fight for an open and Free Europe."

Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the U.S., said defeat for Wilders, who has been in parliament for nearly two decades, should not be considered a sign that European populism is waning.

"He does not represent a populist wave. Rather, he is part of the political landscape and how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism," she said. "The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen's quest for the French presidency, starting April 23 … that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon."

Opinion polls show Le Pen winning the first round of the election in April, but then losing a decisive second round vote
in May to whichever of centrist Emmanuel Macron or conservative candidate Francois Fillon makes it to the May 7 runoff. 

Green wave in Netherlands

In a subplot of the elections, the Green Left party registered a historic victory, turning it into the largest party on the left wing of Dutch politics, together with the Socialist Party.

The provisional results showed the Greens leaping from four seats to 14 in parliament after a strong campaign by charismatic leader Jesse Klaver, who invites comparisons to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Dutch Green Party leader Jesse Klaver appears before supporters in Amsterdam, with his party expected to gain several seats. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

It remains to be seen if the 30-year-old Klaver will take his party into the next ruling coalition, which looks likely to be dominated by Rutte's VVD and other right-leaning parties.

Rutte had framed the election as a choice between continuity and chaos, portraying himself as a safe custodian of the nation's economic recovery and casting Wilders as a far-right radical who was unprepared to make tough decisions.

Although he drove through unpopular austerity measures over the last four years, the Dutch economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has fallen fast under the prime minister.

Wilders, meanwhile, attempted to tap into discontent among voters who said they were not benefiting from the economic recovery.

Even if his party had placed first in the election, Wilders stood a remote chance of becoming prime minister in the Netherlands, where a proportional representation system all but guarantees coalition governments.

The left-leaning Dutch Labour Party appeared to be hammered by its supporters for its role over the last four years in pushing through a tough austerity package as junior member in a two-party cabinet with Rutte's VVD.

Weeks, if not months of coalition-building talks may be required before a new government is installed.

With files from The Associated Press