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Leader Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks reacts during election night in Amsterdam. The Liberal party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was set to win the most seats in Wednesday's elections, forcing far-right Geert Wilders into second place. (ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Leader Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks reacts during election night in Amsterdam. The Liberal party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was set to win the most seats in Wednesday's elections, forcing far-right Geert Wilders into second place. (ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Centre-left shift in Dutch election deals blow to populism Add to ...

Voters in the Netherlands have delivered a major boost to the European Union, turning away from firebrand populism and electing a decidedly pro-European parliament.

After weeks of bitter campaigning, Wednesday’s election delivered a blow to Geert Wilders’s anti-immigration Freedom Party and major gains for the Green Left, a pro-EU party led by a charismatic 30-year-old with Moroccan heritage.

The clear shift toward a more centre-left Netherlands government that embraces immigration and Europe will be a sigh of relief for many across the EU. And it bodes well for candidates in France and Germany who share similar beliefs and are leading in public-opinion polls in the run-up to elections in those countries.

Mr. Wilders had been trying to capitalize on the same forces that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. He’d been leading the polls for months, calling Moroccans scum and vowing to close mosques, ban the Koran and pull the Netherlands out of the EU.

Doug Saunders: What if Europe’s elections aren’t about angry intolerance?

There had been fears across the EU that he would win the most seats on Wednesday, causing political turmoil in the Netherlands and bolstering the cause of far-right parties in France and Germany. In a sign of how intense the campaign had become, more than 80 per cent of voters turned out, a stunning figure even for the Netherlands where voter turnout is routinely well above 70 per cent.

But Mr. Wilders’s message failed to gain much traction and the Freedom Party was expected to end up tied with the Christian Democrats and D66, both pro-European parties, with 19 seats in the 150-seat legislature. And Green Left was only slightly behind at 14 seats. However, all four were running well behind the Liberals, who were on track to top the seat count at 33.

Together D66 and Green Left will now have the largest block of seats in parliament and both parties are expected to be part of a coalition government with the Liberals, led by Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister in the outgoing government.

Mr. Rutte said voters had opted not to take any risks on someone such as Mr. Wilders. “It is also an evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the U.S. elections, said stop to the wrong kind of populism,” he said, amid a crowd of well-wishers who gathered at a hotel in The Hague Wednesday night to celebrate the results.

“I think this is very good news for Europe,” added Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a Liberal member of parliament who is the country’s Defence Minister in the outgoing government. “All of us have been witnessing Brexit and also Trump. … So I am convinced that Germany, France and all the others with elections coming up will be able to act accordingly.”

Mr. Wilders, who lives in seclusion because of death threats, fired off a tweet saying: “We won seats! We’ve passed the first hurdle! Rutte is not rid of me yet!”

And indeed there are still plenty of worries for EU leaders. Mr. Wilders’s party did win four more seats, not as many as had been predicted only a few months ago but an indication that he remains a powerful figure in the country with a core base of support.

And the two big establishment parties – the Liberals and the Labour Party – suffered drops in support. The Liberals lost nearly 10 seats while Labour went down by close to 30. Analysts said both parties, which had governed in a coalition since 2012, had been punished for a series of austerity measures introduced after the financial crisis that hit in 2008.

Instead, voters turned to a wide selection of other parties, particularly the Green Left. Led by Jesse Klaver, the Greens were heading toward quadrupling their seat total to 16, the biggest gain of any of the 28 parties contesting the election.

Mr. Klaver, whose father is from Morocco and mother is of Dutch-Indonesian heritage, had been cast as the counterweight to Mr. Wilders by strongly supporting the EU and immigration. Mr. Klaver is often compared to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but his politics are much closer to Democrat Bernie Sanders, whom he considers a kind of mentor.

In a brief interview this week, Mr. Klaver called Mr. Wilders dangerous. “I think we have to make sure that we beat all the populists. Not only here in the Netherlands but all over Europe,” he said. I think it’s time for a new period here in Europe. And the populists for too many years they were too powerful and I think let’s quit with it.”

He and others pointed to the impact of Mr. Trump, suggesting the U.S. President’s election and early days in office had turned off voters and hurt Mr. Wilders, who had aligned himself with Mr. Trump’s message.

Mr. Rutte also received a boost from a recent diplomatic row with Turkey over the Netherlands’ decision to stop two Turkish cabinet ministers from addressing a rally in Rotterdam for Turks planning to vote in a referendum in that country on constitutional changes. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the Netherland’s actions “Nazi like” and hit back with diplomatic sanctions. Mr. Rutte won support for appearing decisive and standing up to Turkey.

Mr. Rutte also benefited from the growing strength of the Dutch economy. Unemployment is at a five-year low and the country’s economy is forecast to grow by about 2 per cent this year. Over all, the euro-zone economies have been turning around in recent months, with unemployment falling and growth ticking up in most of the 28 countries. That could also help lift pro-EU candidates in France and Germany, such as En Marche! leader Emmanuel Macron and German Socialist Martin Schulz who have been leading in some opinion polls in their respective races.

“I am relieved, but we need to continue to fight for an open and free Europe,” Mr. Schulz said Wednesday after the Dutch results began to come out.

Judith Tesser was relieved too. She campaigned for the Liberals and smiled broadly as the exit polls showed her party led the seat total and was heading back into power.

“People trust the things we do and they believe in our way of working,” she said, amid cheers and boisterous music at the downtown hotel. And she dismissed Mr. Wilders, saying he is all talk and no action.

“Our people here, we are really very tolerant,” she said gesturing around the ballroom. “For us, black and white, whatever religion, everything is the same. We live together, we share everything together, we work together. Populist people will always be around. But for us, it’s just statements and nothing more than that.” 

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