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Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), sits next to Dutch MP Fleur Agema as he delivers a speech at a post-election meeting at the Nieuwspoort conference centre after his party's victory in yesterday's general election, in The Hague, Netherlands, on Nov. 23.Carl Court/Getty Images

Geert Wilders has been the face of European populism for more than 20 years, but until Wednesday, he’d been a marginal figure in Dutch politics and shunned from getting anywhere close to the centre of power.

Now Mr. Wilders is in the pole position to become the country’s next prime minister after his Party for Freedom, or PVV, scored a stunning victory in Wednesday’s election.

Final results showed that the PVV will have 37 seats in the 150-seat legislature. That’s more than double the number of seats the party won in the last election and 12 more than its closest rival, the Labour-Green alliance. The ruling liberal party, VVD, fell to third place with 24 seats.

“The PVV can no longer be ignored,” Mr. Wilders told cheering supporters on election night. “We will govern.”

Mr. Wilders still has to negotiate a coalition with at least two other major parties to secure a majority of seats in parliament. Those discussions could take months and could easily fail.

He’ll have to overcome major policy differences and years of hostility from mainstream politicians who have refused to work with Mr. Wilders in the past. But analysts say the PVV’s strong showing makes it hard for the other leaders to keep the party out of government.

“When he gets that kind of a margin of victory, nobody is going to question his right to attempt to form a government and his presumed right to be the next prime minister,” said Brian Burgoon, a political-science professor at the University of Amsterdam. “I’m thinking that they are going to be able to form a government.”

The election result is a huge personal triumph for Mr. Wilders, 60, who has led a crusade against immigration and Islam ever since he entered parliament in 1998 and founded PVV in 2004.

His controversial views have often landed him in hot water. He once advocated a tax on head scarves and caused a furor by making a film about the Quran that included the sound of pages being torn. In 2016, he was convicted of insulting people of Moroccan descent after leading supporters in anti-Moroccan chants.

The PVV’s platform outlines a nationalist and isolationist future for the country. It calls for an end to immigration, the closure of mosques, a ban on Islamic education and withdrawing from international agreements to fight climate change. Mr. Wilders wants a referendum on EU membership and no further support for Ukraine. “We will rebuild the Netherlands and put the Dutch first again,” the party says.

Analysts say Mr. Wilders surprise victory stemmed from a number of factors that went his way during the campaign.

The previous government, headed by Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, collapsed last summer over plans to curtail the number of asylum seekers. Mr. Rutte announced his resignation from politics although he will stay on as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.

The party’s new leader, Dilan Yesilgoz, tried to position the liberals further to the right on immigration in a bid to woo PVV supporters. She also expressed openness to forming a coalition with Mr. Wilders, something Mr. Rutte had ruled out.

That put immigration at the forefront of the election campaign and legitimized Mr. Wilders in the mind of many voters as a potential governing partner. Mr. Wilders responded by vowing to “put in the fridge” his plans to close mosques and Islamic schools, and he promised to be a prime minister for all Dutch people. “Whatever your faith, your background, whatever that is, regardless of your religion or origin,” he said during a leaders’ debate.

“Wilders saw his chance, moderated his message and suddenly became this friendly grandpa,” said Kristof Jacobs, an associate professor of political science at Radboud University of Nijmegen. “And then you really saw that in a field with lots of new politicians, he was the most experienced one and he grabbed that momentum and he used it to perfection.”

Dr. Jacobs said voters in the Netherlands have a history of swinging behind one party at the last minute, especially when they’re unhappy with the current government. “What you typically have is that out of the blue there is this one party that becomes very big.”

The election result will cause headaches in Brussels just as EU officials were breathing a sigh of relief at the recent vote in Poland, which saw the populist Law and Justice party go down to defeat.

It’s unlikely Mr. Wilders will be able to lead the Netherlands out of the EU, but as prime minister he could make life difficult when it came to EU policy on a range of topics including extending membership to Ukraine or providing further financial support to Kyiv.

“It’s likely that the Netherlands would be trying to block any changes which either transfer more power to the European level, or which would mean enlarging the European Union with new member states,” said Martin Rosema, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Twente.

On Thursday, Mr. Wilders celebrated PVV’s victory and promised to get to work on forming a coalition. “We don’t do that for ourselves. We do that for all Dutch people who voted for us,” he said. “They are fed up with how things have gone in recent years.”

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