Populists Appear to Fall Short in Dutch Election, Amid High Turnout

Right now: European populism faced its first big electoral test since last year’s “Brexit” referendum and Donald J. Trump’s election. Turnout was the highest in decades.

• The main exit poll indicates that the largest party in Parliament will remain the center-party of Mark Rutte, the prime minister, with 31 of 150 seats. He has moved rightward in recent months, making tougher pronouncements on immigration but steering clear of the xenophobic and borderline racist statements of other parties.

• The far-right populist party of Geert Wilders gained seats, but did not perform as strongly as expected. Exit polls suggested that it was tied for second place with the conservative party Christian Democratic Appeal and the center-left pro-European party Democrats 66 — each with 19 seats. Also making a relatively strong showing were the left-leaning Greens, with 16 seats. The leftist, euroskeptic Socialist Party is projected to have 14 seats.

• The big loser appears to be the mainstream Labor party, which had governed with the mainstream conservatives led by Mr. Rutte. The exit poll put it in seventh place, with nine seats.

• Turnout was 82 percent, the highest in decades.

• All 150 seats in the lower (and more powerful) house of Parliament are up for grabs. It takes a simple majority, 76 seats, to govern. Coalitions are the norm. The landscape is highly fragmented, with 11 parties represented in the current Parliament and 13 parties expected to be in the next one.

• Fears of hacking and outside interference are rife, so all vote tallying will be done by hand.

Reactions from the Dutch, and Europe

In a victory speech broadcast live on television, Mr. Rutte said that “this is an evening when the Netherlands — after Brexit and the U.S. elections — has halted this wrong kind of populism.”

Mr. Wilders, in a tweet, noted that his party had gained seats but did not quite declare a triumph. “Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!” he wrote on Twitter.

His nemesis Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, called the result in the Netherlands a “vote for Europe, a vote against extremists.”

At the Christian Democratic Appeal’s party, which was held in a tram museum, the crowd cheered the party’s projected second-place finish (in a three-way tie).

“Honestly, I’m just happy that the P.V.V. is not as big as we feared,” said Robbert-Jan van Duyn, a 29-year-old alderman from the city of Almere, referring to Mr. Wilders’s party, the Party for Freedom.

Guests in the refurbished red-brick depot credited the party’s apparent success to its charismatic leader, Sybrand Buma, and the fact that the party was not part of government during the last four years, when painful cuts were introduced by the coalition of Mr. Rutte’s party and the Labour Party.

Mr. Buma had himself tacked rightward in recent days, but his supporters did not seem concerned. “It was a way of reaching out to people who felt like they weren’t being heard,” said Mark van de Fliert, a 26-year-old student of foreign policy who volunteered as a youth organizer. “I don’t see him as a populist. Quite the opposite: I see him as really stable.” — SEWELL CHAN and CHRISTOPHER F. SCHUETZE

Voting everywhere

It is hard to imagine a place where it is easier to vote than in the Netherlands. If you’re a commuter going to work in one of the larger Dutch cities, chances are there will be a voting tent set up in the train station where you board and where you get off.

If you were taking high tea at the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague, there was a voting booth one flight up from the wood-paneled lobby.

Shopping at a grocery store or going to a bar? Some have tables with makeshift voting booths.

Playing football or working out? You can vote at sports complexes. You can also vote in community centers, mosques and churches, libraries, homes for the aged and concert halls.

Voters don’t have to live where they vote, so those vacationing on islands in the North Sea can walk into local polling places and cast their ballots. In the village of Schiermonnikoog on the island of the same name, 105 percent of the population had already voted as of 5 p.m. The extras were visitors to the island.

In this country with 12.9 million eligible voters, there are 9,000 polling places, so the lines are relatively short and all voters need to show is their registration card anywhere in the municipality where they live. (Those voting outside their municipality need a special pass.)

Most polling sites are open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., but one — a flower kiosk in the train station at Castricum, in the north — got a head start. It opened just after the stroke of midnight, and by 1 a.m., 97 people had cast ballots there.

Turnout is up from 2012

As of 9 p.m., 82 percent of the electorate had voted, up from 75 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Some polling stations were running out of ballot papers, according to the national broadcaster NOS.

“It’s already a record,” Jan den Boer, 60, the administrator of a community center in The Hague that adjoins the city’s largest supermarket, Albert Heijn, said in the afternoon.

As he munched on a meat sandwich known as a broodje bal, he said: “We’ve already had 900 people vote, maybe more; people are coming in all day. Usually it’s just the morning and evening after work.”

“They always say it’s important to vote, and this year there’s more of a difference between parties.”

At a voting station the southern town of Sittard, a veteran election monitor who was distributing ballots said: “I have never seen anything quite like this. Today people started early and they’re still coming. It’s been nonstop.”

Islam a concern for Wilders voters

Brendan Groeneveld, 30, who works in tech support in the city of Almere, east of Amsterdam, said he was supporting Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom primarily because of his hobby: Airsport, a gladiator-like pastime similar to paintball, but that uses toys nearly indistinguishable from real firearms, he said.

“It is legal, but uncertainties in Dutch law are giving the players a lot of headaches, in regards to some peripheral items,” he said. The Party for Freedom supports expanding the legal use of firearms, he said, “and they’ll at least give more transparency and clarity in regards to what’s allowed and what’s not.” (Mr. Groeneveld added that he would also like to be able to have real firearms for hunting.)

Mr. Groeneveld said that his mother was Canadian and his wife was American, but expressed worries about Islam. “A lot of Dutch culture is giving way to other cultures, and Islam is the most in-your-face, an obnoxious one,” he said.

He said that he agreed when Mr. Wilders talked in public several times about trying to reduce the number of Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands. “We’re all supposed to be Dutch — one society, one culture — and they persist in standing out,” he said. “I don’t really like that. I’m also of the opinion that specifically Islam is stuck in the Middle Ages. The rest of the world has adapted to modern times; they’re insisting on public executions and decapitations.” — NINA SIEGAL

A young leader on the move

On the other end of the spectrum from Mr. Wilders is a new figure: Jesse Klaver, 30, the leader of the Greens. The party holds just four seats in Parliament but seems poised to make big gains.

Younger, more energetic and more openly urban and cosmopolitan than many of his rivals, Mr. Klaver has made an unabashed appeal to voters in larger cities and their suburbs, emphasizing the country’s international image as a place that welcomes refugees, protects the environment and has a dynamic postindustrial economy.

The son of a Moroccan father (whom Mr. Klaver says he did not know) and an Indonesian-Dutch mother, Mr. Klaver was raised as a Catholic — a minority in this largely secular nation — and started his career with the National Coalition of Christian Trade Unions.

With looks that remind many people of a younger Justin Trudeau and an American style of campaigning that included a big final rally that was styled as a “meet-up” with drinks, he is a charismatic newcomer.

“The traditional parties are not winning elections anymore,” he said in an interview. “What we try to do is to build a movement that is bigger than the traditional parties. What we want to do is to fight populism.” — ALISSA J. RUBIN

Rutte’s supporters opt for stability

Henk Janssen, a hotel manager in Valkenburg, in the south of the country, said he was voting for the party of Mr. Rutte, the prime minister.

“I vote for stability, for the people in government now,” he said. “Half the world seems to be on fire. People are undermining each other, insulting, lying, creating conflict. Not only in our country but around the world.”

He said he believed that a voter uprising or even a violent confrontation over immigration was possible, because “the mood is harsher everywhere. People are becoming more extreme, more willing to fight when they disagree.”

With the elections over, he hopes a new government “can calm things down. The political climate right now is unhealthy.” He noted the threat of Islamist extremism and tensions with Russia and Turkey.

When Mr. Wilders briefly campaigned in the town of Valkenburg, “it was really abnormal, police everywhere, a helicopter flying circles over the center,” said Anna van Meersen, a shop attendant in the town. “How could a man like that govern us?”

But, she cautioned: “People who vote for Wilders may not talk about it. They don’t like the negative reactions they get.” — MARLISE SIMONS

Some young voters stay home

Brit Maanen, 20, a receptionist at a wellness center in Heerlen, said she and her friends were not voting. “We don’t understand enough of what goes on,” she said. “We hear a lot of talk among politicians, but we don't hear much difference. We see a lot of people who want some power, or a lot of power.”

Ms. Maanen said she had grown up in a multicultural society where she was used to seeing immigrants. In her hometown, Heerlen, she said she was pleased to see “fewer women who are totally veiled.”

“Many wear headscarves. But not many are now covering up their faces. I feel better about that, not so uneasy.”

What does she want from the new government? “In this country we have freedom of religion, freedom of expression. We want to keep it that way.”

Has the populist fever peaked?

Paul van’t Veer, 44, a D.J. and music programmer who also works in a record store, grew up attending antinuclear rallies in the city of Zwolle in the central-eastern Netherlands.

On Wednesday, he planned to vote for the Party for the Animals. “They’re one of the only parties that really cares about how the world will be in 15 or 20 years,” he said at a cafe in Zwolle. “The environment is one of the main issues that hasn’t been talked about much before these elections. It’s a bigger fear for me than terrorism is.”

But Mr. Veer’s father has moved in a different direction. He plans to vote for Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom.

“I’m very sad about that,” the son said. “Nowadays I’m kind of ashamed of Holland because there seems to be far more hate and racism and intolerance than ever came to the surface before.”

Other voters in Zwolle said they hoped to stem the populist tide.

Iris Groenendyk, 27, a child protection worker, said she had voted for the centrist party Democrats 66, based on its positions on education and health care. “I’m a bit scared, because of the fact that there are a lot of people who are interested by Wilders’s rhetoric,” she said.

Theo van Uden, 66, a human resources manager at a provincial Dutch court, said he was voting for the opposition Socialist Party, because income inequality was his main concern.

“The last four years I would say that the politics have changed and it looks like populism is growing and growing, but my feeling is that we’re at the top of the hill with populism,” he said. “ I don’t think it’s going up more. I think it’s going down.” — NINA SIEGAL

Forming a government

Parliament is expected to appoint an “informateur” to begin consultations with other parties on forming a government as soon as Friday. Next week, the new Parliament will meet for the first time and deliberate the process of creating a government. The process could take a few months, given the number of parties. Then the coalition names a cabinet, and King Willem-Alexander swears in the ministers. — MILAN SCHREUER

Why votes will be tallied by hand

After nearly three decades of using voting machines, the Dutch reverted in 2009 to paper ballots marked with red pencils. For this election, the government has tightened security further, after reports that Russian-associated hackers were trying to gain access to government computers late last year.

In what the Dutch are calling the “four-eyes principle,” each vote will be counted and verified by two people at the polling station. Tallies will then be recorded by hand and initially sent by text message to the municipality. The ballots and tally sheets will then be physically delivered to municipal voting centers so that the counts can be double-checked and verified.

How the voting works

There are 12.9 million eligible voters, out of a population of 17 million. Women have had the vote since 1922. The minimum age is 18; about 850,000 citizens will be old enough to vote for the first time.

Voting is by proportional representation. Voters choose one party’s list — there are 28 parties competing — and candidates from the list make it into Parliament based on their party’s share of the total vote.

There is no minimum threshold in the Netherlands. A party that gets 1/150th of the votes cast is guaranteed one of the 150 seats.

Wilders’s hometown is lukewarm

In the picturesque heart of Mr. Wilders’s hometown, Venlo, just across the border from northwest Germany, there did not appear to be a strong swell of support for him.

“I share some opinions with him, but he shouldn’t be so radical,” said Paula Vanhegen, 64. “Otherwise we get a second Hitler and we don’t want that.”

Many younger and middle-aged residents seemed convinced that Mr. Wilders’s party wouldn’t even make it into second place. Stan Koolen, 19, an agribusiness student, said he was convinced Mr. Rutte’s party would win.

For three working mothers sipping coffee in the old town square, TV and social media played a big part in helping them decide.

“Life in the Netherlands is good,” said one of them, Miriam Swaghoven, 43, adding that Mr. Rutte had represented the country well for eight years.

But the longer conversation went on, the more the women expressed unhappiness with what they said was pressure on Dutch people to abandon traditions like the character “Black Pete.” Muslims and others “are allowed to have their traditions, while we have to change ours,” Ms. Swaghoven said.

Only one interviewee, Nadine Houwes, 20, a veterinary assistant, said she would not vote. All politicians “say something but are not doing it,” she shrugged. — ALISON SMALE

Geert Wilders, party of one?

Mr. Wilders is unique in that he has taken advantage of a loophole that allows him to lead a party with seats in Parliament even though, as a technical and legal matter, his “party” is an association, and is not covered by some of the Dutch and European Union law that pertains to political parties.

For legal purposes, Mr. Wilders is the sole member of his Party for Freedom. Everyone else is part of the party’s association — the Dutch word “vereniging” — and they are not required to pay dues.

There is no requirement in the Netherlands that candidates on the party lists for which citizens cast votes need to be party members. But every other party in the Dutch Parliament is organized along traditional lines, with members paying dues.

By having an association rather than a party, experts say, Mr. Wilders retains control over the party’s platforms and is able to keep much of his financing secret, because under Dutch law, the head of the party must report all income and expenditures to party members, and he is the only one. (Only larger sums — expenditures over 4,500 euros, or about $4,780, and debts over 25,000 euros, or about $26,500 — need to be disclosed to the government.)

The downside is that he is ineligible for government subsidies available to parties with more than 1,000 members. — ALISSA J. RUBIN

Late voters lined up to cast their ballots in the final hour before polls closed. Credit Remko De Waal/European Pressphoto Agency

Dutch election: PM Rutte sees off anti-EU Wilders challenge

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party has won the most seats in parliamentary elections, exit polls say.
His centre-right VVD Party won 31 out of 150 seats, polls suggest.

His party came far ahead of the next three parties, including Geert Wilders' anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV), the Christian Democrats and the D66 Party, which each got 19 seats.

Mr Wilders' party had been leading in opinion polls but support for the party appeared to slip in recent days.
Voter participation in the general election was high - with an estimated turnout of at least 81%.

Analysts say a high turnout may have benefited pro-EU and liberal parties.

"Today was a celebration of democracy," Mr Rutte said, adding that the Netherlands had said no to the "wrong kind of populism".

Although the VVD had lost several seats since the last election, many had expected the party to lose much more ground to the Freedom Party.

Many had been watching the vote in the Netherlands closely, as an indication for how populist parties may fare in other elections in EU countries.

France goes to the polls next month to elect a new president, while Germany is due to hold a general election in September.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called Mr Rutte to congratulate him, while Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has also tweeted his congratulations.

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament until earlier this year, said he was "relieved" Mr Wilders' party had lost.

"We must continue to fight for an open and free Europe!" he added on Twitter (in German).

However, Mr Wilders warned that Mr Rutte "has not seen the last of me".

He previously said that the "patriotic revolution" would continue to take place, and "the genie will not go back into the bottle".

Pharrell Williams' song Happy pumped out across a conference hall converted to host the victorious VVD.
"Of course he'll still be prime minister," a loyal party member with black rimmed glasses told us. "He's the best man for the job."

Entry to the gathering was invitation only. Most of the foreign press were contained in a side room. The champagne was flowing but there wasn't much fizz. The mild-mannered, measured Mark Rutte appears to have been given a mandate.

He will say he stopped the "dominos of populism" from falling, but to do that he shifted himself to occupy the populists' territory, talking tough on immigration and integration.

As parliamentary seats are allocated in exact proportion to a party's vote share, the VVD party will need to go into coalition with other parties.

The VVD had ruled out a coalition with the Freedom Party - but not the other two runners-up, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party, and the Democrats 66 (D66) party, which are both pro-EU.
The CDA said it was delighted with its election result and looked forward to helping form a coalition.

Hence, the other smaller parties will be seen as potential power-brokers.

Exit polls suggest the Green-Left party performed strongly, winning a total of 16 seats, compared to four in the last parliament.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party took 14 seats, while the VVD's previous coalition partner, the Labour Party, saw its number of seats plunge from 38 to nine.

Analysts said it appeared to have been punished for its role in the coalition government, where it helped pass austerity measures.

Party leader Lodewijk Asscher called it "a bitter evening for labour - unbelievably disappointing".
"Rebuilding the party begins today," he said.

Dutch elections: Wilders' far-right party trailing, exit polls show

Conservative Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party has taken the lead in an election widely seen as an indicator of populist sentiment in Europe, exit polls for the national broadcaster NOS indicated Wednesday.

Estimates project the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is followed by a three-way tie for second: Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV), Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and D66 (Democrats).
Wilders, a far-right firebrand, tweeted: "PVV voters thanks. We won seats, first victory is in. Rutte hasn't got rid of me yet."

Other parties expected to win seats are: GroenLinks (Green Left), the Socialist Party and the Labour Party (PVDA), led by Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher.

Asscher promised that his party would make a comeback, after the exit polls estimated it would suffer its biggest loss in years.

"Today we share sadness," he said, addressing a large crowd.

"Sadness about a disappointing dramatic result, but please never forget our ideals are worthwhile," he said. "Social democracy will come back. We will start building today."

Preliminary results were expected late Wednesday.

Test of populism
The vote was widely seen as a test of populism in the wake of US President Donald Trump's victory and the Brexit referendum vote in the UK.

Controversial anti-immigrant, anti-European Union figure Wilders had run on a "de-Islamification" platform, calling for Islamic schools to be closed and the Quran and burqa to be banned.

That message struck a chord with many ordinary Dutch voters who have been hard hit by the government's austerity measures, and who feel the country has taken in too many refugees and migrants.

"The Netherlands is full," Wilders supporter Jack told CNN outside a polling station in Volendam on Wednesday. "If it were up to me I would have stopped all [Turkish people] at the border."

Others were disturbed by the tone of the campaign, and said they had voted tactically, to keep the far right out of power, or for parties they trusted to fight for causes they cared about, irrespective of the current political climate.

"I thought it was important and so I voted strategically," said Amsterdam resident Kathie Somerwil. "I usually vote a little more left of center but at least now with this Wilders, I think this is not the Dutch way ... so I voted VVD for Mr. Rutte."

Author Bert Nap said he had voted for the progressive PVDA party because it had had the guts to go into government with Rutte's party, despite that making it "very unpopular" with many supporters.

"I want to sustain a party in our political system that has acted very strongly ... They will be decimated in this election but they have to be able to come upright for the next election and so you have to sustain it," he said.

Foreign reaction
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentilioni tweeted his approval to the early polling results in the Netherlands: "No #Nexit. The anti-EU right has lost the election in the Netherlands. All together for change and revive the (European) Union."

The German Foreign Ministry praised the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy's apparent strong showing.
"Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti-European populists. That's good news. We need you for a strong #Europe!" the tweet said.

Coalitions take a while to form
The splintered political landscape in the Netherlands -- there were 28 parties on the ballot -- and the country's system of proportional representation mean coalition government is the norm.

But it can also lead to lengthy periods of political instability and uncertainty. The average time taken to form a coalition cabinet in the post-war era has been 89.5 days, according to the House of Representatives website. In 1977, it took 208 days for Dries Van Agt's Christian Democrats to reach a power-sharing deal.

Voters say they are expecting a protracted period of talks before the make-up of the next government becomes clear.

"I think there will be a lot of negotiations," said research analyst Robin Vanstraalen. "Given the whole fragmentation and the polls showing it will be a long process. And eventually it will end up in the middle -- which is where we have been for the last few years already."

Factors that boosted support for leader
At one stage, Wilders and Rutte were neck-and-neck in the Peilingwijzer poll of polls by Leiden University, but in recent days Rutte had taken the lead. He had moved to the right in response to Wilders' popularity.

Andre Krouwel, political scientist at the Free University Amsterdam, and owner of election website Kieskompas, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ongoing war of words with the Dutch government appeared to have boosted support for Rutte.

Tensions between the Netherlands and Turkey have been high since the Dutch government refused to allow Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to visit Rotterdam for a political rally last weekend; Erdogan retaliated by blaming the Netherlands for the Srebrenica massacre in 995.

Voter turnout in the Netherlands is traditionally high -- almost 75% at the last election in 2012 -- and there were indications that Wednesday's polls were no exception.

A CNN reporter in The Hague State saw long queues forming at polling booths in the city's central station as commuters returned home from work.

And NOS reported that by 5:45 p.m. local time, 55% of the electorate had voted -- up from 48% at the same time in 2012.

Amsterdam polling station volunteer Hanneke Spijker told CNN large numbers of people had been coming out to vote since early Wednesday morning. "It's incredible," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it will be a record turnout ... there were lines, and we never have lines."

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