WINNER: Dutch Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte reacts on stage after the final results in the Netherlands’ general election in The Hague on Thursday gave Mr Rutte enough votes to form a government. Picture: REUTERS
WINNER: Dutch Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte reacts on stage after the final results in the Netherlands’ general election in The Hague on Thursday gave Mr Rutte enough votes to form a government. Picture: REUTERS

WORK to build a new ruling Dutch coalition started on Thursday, after conservative leader Mark Rutte bucked a European trend by winning an election despite pushing through tough austerity measures to counter the region’s devastating debt crisis.

Firebrand populist Geert Wilders was hammered at the polls.

"Now we have to focus on forming, as soon as possible, a stable government," Mr Rutte told legislators from his free-market VVD party.

Mr Rutte later said he would not discuss coalition negotiations, to avoid jeopardising the sensitive talks. Mr Rutte’s party won 10 extra seats to give it 41 overall in the 150-seat House of Representatives. His closest rival — and now most likely coalition partner — Diederik Samsom of Labour saw his party grow by nine seats to 39.

The major gains for two of this nation’s strongest supporters of the European Union were a significant boost for EU unity and a heavy defeat for Eurosceptics.

Mr Wilders lost nine of his Freedom Party’s 24 seats after campaigning to pull the Netherlands out of the 27-nation European Union and drop the euro. The far-left Socialist Party was unchanged at 15 seats.

Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the conservative Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, said the results would resonate well beyond Dutch borders.

"They are a slap in the face of anti-European extremism and populism," he said on Thursday. "Dutch voters clearly chose to reinforce pro-European measures."

Since Europe’s debt crisis erupted in 2009 and plunged the continent into the economic doldrums, longtime Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi quit, Greece’s government fell and French President Nicolas Sarkozy — a conservative such as Mr Rutte — was voted out of office. Governments also fell in the debt-strapped Spain and Ireland.

Mr Rutte reversed the tide.

"It is a very strong message from the Dutch public that they are not punishing parties that want to be credible with their solutions," said Piotr Kaczynski of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

Mr Rutte and Mr Samsom will now have to see if they can build a coalition. But that may not be easy.

Mr Rutte called Labour’s policies "dangerous for the Netherlands" during the campaign, while Mr Samsom said he wanted to see a more social platform from the next government. "The direction can and must change," Mr Samsom told supporters in Amsterdam. "Because the right-wing policies of the last two years cannot continue."

The leader of the House of Representatives met party leaders on Thursday afternoon to investigate possible coalitions and was to report to Queen Beatrix later in the day.

Analysts say Mr Rutte and Mr Samsom should be able to reach agreement, though some say they may need a third centrist party in a coalition because VVD and Labour together do not command a majority in the upper house of parliament, meaning they could have trouble passing new legislation.

Mr Rutte, meanwhile, is sticking to his message that austerity is the best cure for the debt crisis. The fact that he managed to win despite that message is good news for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another conservative leader facing re-election next year.

"(I want) to enable this country to emerge stronger from this crisis, to continue to reduce our government’s deficit, to continue to make our economy grow, to continue our upward trend," Mr Rutte said.

The election’s biggest loser was Mr Wilders, who soared to prominence with outspoken criticism of Islam before turning on the EU.

He remained defiant, saying that he would continue to fight "to protect the Netherlands against Europe, against mass immigration, against the (European) super-state".

Sapa-AP