Far-right, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders won the most votes Wednesday in the Dutch election with a landslide margin, according to an exit poll, putting him in line to lead talks to form a new ruling coalition and possibly become the country’s prime minister.
The exit poll published by the national broadcaster NOS said Wilders’ Party for Freedom won 35 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, more than double the 17 he won at the last election.
If confirmed when votes are counted, a Wilders victory would send a seismic shock through European politics. His election program calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, a total halt to accepting asylum-seekers and migrant pushbacks at the Dutch borders. It also advocates the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands.
But the lawmaker, who has in the past been labeled a Dutch version of Donald Trump, first would have to form a coalition government before he can take the reins of power. That will be tough as mainstream parties are reluctant to join forces with him and his Party for Freedom.
The exit poll was published as voting ended in the general election. It can have a margin of error of up to three seats, but generally is accurate within one or two seats.
Dutch voters were eagerly awaiting the outcome of Wednesday’s neck-and-neck election that will usher in a new ruling coalition and a successor for Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister.
Opinion polls suggested the new leader could either be a former refugee from Turkey who could become the country’s first female prime minister, an anti-Islam populist who wants to quit the European Union or the EU’s former climate czar who wants to lead a progressive-left coalition.
A popular centrist reformer who created his new party only a few months ago and long set the campaign agenda appeared to be fading in polls in recent days.
“It feels like a very important election year because a lot of things can change now,” said clinical midwife Jacobine Visser, 48, at an Amsterdam polling station.
One thing looks certain: It’s going to be a close call and that could spark more uncertainty in the splintered Dutch political landscape and lengthy negotiations to form a new coalition. Citizens in the nation of nearly 18 million could vote for 26 parties at locations ranging from windmills to churches to the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam.
The result is the latest in a series of elections that is altering the European political landscape. From Slovakia and Spain, to Germany and Poland, populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others.
A poll released Tuesday put the Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders — sometimes called the Dutch Donald Trump — very narrowly ahead of Rutte’s liberal, pro-free trade People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and a center-left bloc made up of the Labor Party and Green Left.
If the ruling party manages to cling to power, it would pave the way for Justice and Security Minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius to become the first woman to occupy the prime minister’s office known as the Little Tower.
Born in Turkey, she is a former refugee who now advocates for a crackdown on migration as the Netherlands struggles to accommodate asylum-seekers.
Veteran politician Wilders, whose poll numbers have risen steadily during the campaign, goes much further, calling for an “asylum stop” and pushbacks of migrants at Dutch borders.
Once Wednesday’s votes have been counted, party leaders will have to negotiate the makeup of the next governing coalition. After the 2021 election, it took more than nine months for them to put together a four-party arrangement that was the same as the previous government’s.
Rutte’s fourth and final coalition resigned in July after failing to agree on measures to rein in migration. The issue was one of the dominant themes of the campaign along with how to restore trust in the central government that was eroded by a series of scandals that tarnished Rutte’s time in office.
The leader of the movement to reform government is Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat who has long campaigned for more transparency in government and better protection for whistleblowers.
The heavyweight on the political left is former EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who left his international career to return to his socialist roots and head the Labor Party-Green Left bloc.
In Amsterdam, the executive director of the Anne Frank House, Ronald Leopold, said the building where the teenage Jewish diarist hid from Amsterdam’s Nazi occupiers during World War II before being discovered and sent to her death in a concentration camp was a polling station charged with symbolism.
“The Anne Frank House is one of the places that reminds us what can happen if democracy and the rule of law break down, if they disappear,” he said.
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