THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Centrist European leaders congratulated Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Thursday on an election victory seen as a repudiation of far-right populism in Europe as he looked ahead to what is likely to be a long process of talks to form a government.
Rutte's right-wing VVD easily won national elections, defying polls that suggested a close race with anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders.
With most votes counted for the 150-seat legislature, Rutte's VVD had 33 seats, eight fewer than in 2012. The far-right populist Party for Freedom of Wilders was second with 20 seats, five more than the last time but still a stinging setback after polls in recent months had suggested his party could become the largest in Dutch politics.
"We are the second party in the Netherlands. Congratulations," Wilders said, popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine at a meeting of his new Parliamentary bloc. But, he conceded, "We would have preferred to be the first party."
The Christian Democrats and centrist D66 party — likely future coalition partners for Rutte — won 19 seats each.
On Thursday, Edith Schippers, a prominent VVD party member, was appointed to investigate what coalitions might be possible in the splintered Dutch political landscape. Rutte will likely remain prime minister, but he warned that it could take a while to form a government.
"We need time for everybody to get back into the mood for cooperation, and that doesn't happen in a few hours," Rutte said.
All mainstream parties have ruled out cooperating with Wilders' party.
Meanwhile, congratulatory messages poured in from other European leaders, among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the Dutch election "a good day for democracy."
"I was very glad, and I think many people are, that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result," Merkel said during a speech in Berlin on Thursday.
The next test of populism's political viability in Europe will be in France, where Marine Le Pen of the National Front is likely to come out on top in the first round of French elections next month, though less likely to win the final round in May.