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Dutch PM beats back far-right challenge

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte appeared to have defeated a strong challenge by his far-right rival Geert Wilders in Wednesday's key election, exit polls predicted.

Dutch Prime Minister and leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) Mark Rutte answers journalists on his way to cheer marathon runners while campaigning for re-election, in The Hague, on March 12, 2017. The Dutch parliamentary elections are set to take place on March 15, 2017<br />EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte appeared to have defeated a strong challenge by his far-right rival Geert Wilders in Wednesday’s key election, exit polls predicted.

Rutte’s Liberal VVD would scoop up 31 seats in the new parliament making it the largest party, with Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) sharing second place on 19 seats with two other parties, the public broadcaster NOS said.

Millions of Dutch had flocked to the polls in a near record turnout, with stakes high in an election pitting Rutte against his far-right anti-Islam rival.

Following last year’s shock Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being watched as a gauge of the strength of populism on the continent ahead of key elections in France and Germany.

If the results are confirmed, Rutte will likely get the chance to form the next coalition and could possibly turn to the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democracy party D66, which both matched Wilders with a predicted 19 seats.

Wilders had pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU, if he was elected the largest party in the parliament.

“Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay,” Wilders said, voting earlier.

He has however increased the showing of his party which had 12 MPs in the outgoing parliament.

Trumpeting the country’s economic growth and stability, Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country — one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding member of the European Union.

“This is a crucial election for The Netherlands,” said Rutte, the leader of the Liberal VVD party, as he voted.

“This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point… to stop this… domino effect of the wrong sort of populism.”

– Near record turnout –

Queues began early at polling stations on a warm spring day and turnout reached 81 percent, just below the record of 88 percent set in 1977.

Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters had been wavering between the record 28 parties running.

In a rare move, polling stations in Rotterdam and The Hague were allowed to stay open beyond the 2000 GMT closing time in order to allow all those in line to cast their ballots.

In The Hague’s city centre where many residents are from Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese backgrounds, a steady flow of voters -– many of them women wearing headscarfs –- came and went at polling stations.

One Muslim voter told AFP she was afraid of Wilders’ fiery anti-Islam rhetoric.

“If you have one person who criticises, it’s OK. But every time another person comes and then another one… then it’s really hard to defend yourself,” student Khadiga Kallouh, 22 said.

“My mother has never voted before, but now she has and encouraged the whole family to do so because the situation is serious,” said another headscarf-wearing woman.

– Fragmented landscape –

After months leading the polls, Wilders slipped back in recent weeks.

Tough coalition talks are now likely to follow, aiming to put in place the next government.

Rutte, who had 40 seats in the outgoing parliament, has vowed never to work with Wilders again, turned off by his incendiary message, and after the PVV caused an earlier coalition to collapse in 2010.

It reportedly takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority.

“I am hoping for a strong centre” coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft, one of the first voters on Wednesday.

“But I’m afraid it’s going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government,” he told AFP.

Rutte’s handling of a diplomatic crisis with Ankara — barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another — appears to have boosted his image.

Wilders had won support Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him “a patriot”.

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