IN A strong show of support for Europe, Dutch voters have rejected Euro-sceptics and backed two pro-Europe centrist parties.An election that was a litmus test for Dutch willingness to back Europe and the euro during its debt crisis has resulted in Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte claiming victory for his centre-right VVD Party.
The centre-left Labour Party was a close second, with vote-counting continuing last night and a coalition government of the two still probable.
The anti-immigrant Freedom Party of far-right firebrand Geert Wilders looked to have been devastated, with an exit poll suggesting its 24 seats could be slashed to as few as 13.
Mr Wilders, a harsh critic of the European Union, had triggered the election by refusing to back Mr Rutte’s plans for an austerity package to rein in the budget deficit.
Mr Wilders had also called for the Netherlands to ditch the euro and leave the European Union.
He complained that the government was ”throwing money over the dykes” to help Greece and Spain while cutting social services to its own people.
The VVD was set to take 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, two more than the Labour Party.
Voters also rejected the far-left Socialist Party, which had opposed eurozone rescue deals and had led in polls over the past three months.
The result is an embarrassment for pollsters, who had not predicted the abandonment of smaller anti-Europe parties in favour of the two main players, who have both consistently backed eurozone rescue packages.
In essence, Dutch voters seem to have backed further integration with Europe, despite anger that they were being asked to increase contributions to bail-outs of southern nations.
But there might also have been an element of strategic voting, with voters swinging towards the major parties at the last minute in the hope of pushing the one that best represented their views to victory.
Mr Rutte said the result was an endorsement of his austerity platform: ”This is a strong boost for the agenda that we have laid out for the Netherlands, to go on with our policy in this splendid country.”
Mr Rutte had promised to bring down the Dutch deficit and stimulate the economy – which has been flat because of the eurozone crisis – with budget cuts and investment in infrastructure.
Labour leader Diederik Samsom leaned more towards the fiscal stimulus policies of French president Francois Hollande and had campaigned on job-creation programs.
If the two unite in coalition, there is likely to be a moderation of Mr Rutte’s strong support of the austerity policies championed by German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr Rutte had earlier warned against a result that might undermine the close ties between the two nations.
”Will we continue our close relationship with Germany and fighting the euro crisis, or will we shift towards a more France-oriented Europe, which I will be against?” he said after casting his vote.
But Mr Samsom said German-led austerity policies had hurt the Dutch economy: ”It is wrong to assume that this crisis will be solved by a choice between Paris and Berlin. Europe is not about axes. Europe is about co-operation. Otherwise you will never get out of this crisis.”
Mr Wilders, best known for his anti-Muslim views, said of the result, ”I would rather have stood here with good news, but the voter has spoken. We have lost badly.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt welcomed exit-poll results, tweeting, ”Looks as if populist anti-Europeans are losing big-time in Dutch election. Distinctly good news.”
A provisional voting result was expected overnight but the official result will not be confirmed until Monday.
First published on theage.com.au