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Populism gets a black eye

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Dutch PM beats anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders in key elections

THE HAGUE:Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte easily defeated a strong challenge by far-right rival Geert Wilders in key elections seen as a bellwether of populist support in Europe, partial vote counts showed yesterday.

With more than 54 per cent of votes counted, Mr Rutte's liberal VVD party was set to win 32 seats, making it the largest in the new 150-seat parliament, with Mr Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) in second place alongside two others on 19 seats, the Dutch news agency ANP said.

The Dutch flocked to the polls in a near-record turnout, with the stakes high in an election pitting the pro-European Rutte against his anti-immigration and anti-European Union rival.

The vote was being closely scrutinised as a gauge of the rise of populism on the continent ahead of crucial elections in France and Germany.

"This was the evening when the Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," Mr Rutte told supporters.

"Now it's important to unite the country in the coming weeks and months and that we succeed in forming a stable government for the next four years."

Relieved European leaders, fearing the rise of anti-EU sentiment in one of the bloc's founding members, congratulated Mr Rutte, now headed for a third term at the head of the one the eurozone's largest economies.


Spokesman for EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker hailed it as a "vote against extremists".

Mr Wilders had pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Quran and leave the EU if he won the polls.

Eyeing weeks of protracted coalition talks ahead, Mr Wilders offered early yesterday to work with the new government.

"I would still like to co-govern as the PVV, if possible. But if that doesn't work ... we'll support the cabinet, where needed, on issues important to us."

Most of the other leaders, including Mr Rutte, have vowed not to work with Mr Wilders, denouncing his incendiary rhetoric and his go-it-alone attitude.

Turnout reached 81 per cent, just shy of the record of 88 per cent set in 1977.

Mr Rutte appeared to have benefited from his firm stance in a spiralling diplomatic spat with Turkey after the authorities barred Turkish ministers from rallying support in the Netherlands for a referendum.

Assuming the exit polls reflect the final result, Mr Rutte will get the first chance to form the next coalition, and could possibly turn to the Christian Democratic Appeal and the Democracy party D66, which both won 19 seats.

But with the three's combined total of 70 seats, he would need another party to reach the 76-seat majority.- AFP