by Gan Chun, Zindziwe Janse, Jesse Wieten
THE HAGUE, March 16 (Xinhua) -- The Netherlands has said "stop" to the wrong kind of populism, said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Wednesday evening after exit polls showed his center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) would keep its position as the biggest party in the parliamentary election.
"It seems that the VVD will be the largest party three times in a row," Rutte told a crowd of cheering supporters in an election night gathering at the World Trade Center in The Hague.
"It is an evening when the Netherlands said 'Ho' (which means 'stop' in Dutch) to the wrong kind of populism after Brexit and the U.S. elections," Rutte said.
The first exit polls showed that the VVD would win 31 out of 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, while its biggest competitor, the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), would secure only 19 seats, the same as the Democratic 66 (D66) and the Christian Democrats (CDA).
The VVD beating the PVV in the race to become the biggest party means that the Dutch people have refused to give power to a right wing populist party. A win for the PVV could have been a continuation of the wind of populism blowing through Europe and a barometer for the French presidential elections to be kicked off next month and Germany's elections in September.
Alexander Pechtold, leader of D66, reacted to the polls with a message similar to Rutte's.
"After Trump and the Brexit, people looked at Europe, where three countries could send a signal whether or not this continent is following the populists. And it was shown that that sound has been stopped here in the Netherlands," said Pechtold.
Jesse Klaver, leader of the Groenlinks party, also said in his election night speech that populism did not break through, calling it "a historical night."
PVV leader Geert Wilders thanked the people who voted for him on Twitter shortly after the result of the exit polls was revealed. "We have won seats. That's the first victory. Rutte will not get rid of me yet," said Wilders.
"Too bad we are not the biggest party, but it is a result we can be proud of," Wilders added.
Wilders had been in a neck-and-neck battle with Rutte throughout his campaign, but slid in opinion polls in the final run-up to the voting day.
Rutte admitted that the differences had been "emphasized" throughout the campaign, but called on the parties to "bring the country back together again" and to form a stable government in a "sensible manner" in the coming weeks and months.
The VVD leader now considers it important that the country remains "safe, stable and prosperous" after the election.
"We are the most competitive economy of the EU; we saw the quickest decrease of unemployment in ten years; the government's finances are in order; we even have a surplus on the budget," said Rutte, adding that the most important task in the coming years is to make ordinary people feel the success in their personal lives.
"Tonight we celebrate, and tomorrow we will continue to work for the Netherlands," added Rutte.
Rutte also expressed appreciation for his coalition partner from the Labour Party (PvdA) which lost 29 seats and secured only 9.
According to Eddy Habben Jansen, an election expert based in The Hague, the surprising loss of the PvdA could mean that the new coalition government would expect big changes in its policy.
Rutte told supporters that he has been receiving phone calls from other European leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Rutte on Wednesday evening to express congratulations and wishes for cooperation, Merkel's spokesperson Steffen Seibert wrote on Twitter.
"I am looking forward to continuing good cooperation as friends, neighbors, Europeans," Seibert quoted Merkel as saying.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has congratulated Rutte for the Dutch election outcome, calling it a victory of Europe and a vote against extremism.
The turnout in this year's Dutch election was over 80 percent, an significant increase compared to the previous election in 2012.
The final results will be released on March 21.