Exit polls in the Netherlands indicate Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD Party will win Wednesday's parliamentary election, while populist Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom is in a three-way tie for second place. Rutte's party was on track to win 31 seats in the lower house of parliament, while Wilders' party was projected to win 19 seats.
The results of the election — which in the Netherlands is conducted on paper ballots using red pencils — are not expected to be known until early morning here. But if the exit polls are accurate, the tallies will be seen as a significant defeat for Wilders and his brand of ethno-nationalism.
In interviews across the country in the past week, even Wilder's supporters found some of his rhetoric too incendiary, including his suggestions that the Netherlands kick some Moroccans out of the country.
Voting in The Hague this morning, Wilders tried to portray populism as something that would surge forward regardless of the results here.
"Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle," he said. "People feel misrepresented."
Indeed, Wilders did tap into very real concerns in the Netherlands about immigration, national identity and government austerity. The country took in more than 50,000 refugees in 2015 during the European migration crisis. That created strains on social services and some people complained that Dutch citizens lost out on public housing to help people fleeing Syria. Wilders supporters saw him as the defender of white, native-born Dutch.
Wilders is a political insider, one of the longest serving members of parliament here, but he captured global attention this year because of the surge in populism that began last June when the United Kingdom stunned the world and voted to leave the European Union. Donald Trump continued what looked like a possible trend with his upset victory last November, and Wilders hoped to become the third populist politician to defy the odds.
As news of the exit polls spread, governments in Western Europe appeared to breathe a sigh of relief.
"The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands you are a champion!" tweeted Peter Altmaier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff. "Congratulations on this great result."
But there is more to come. The next — and far more consequential — test for political populism begins next month in France where the National Front's Marine Le Pen is running an anti-immigration, anti-European Union campaign.