Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has exceeded expectations and scored a resounding victory over far-right anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders in a parliamentary election watched worldwide.
"The Netherlands said 'Whoa! Stop!' to the wrong kind of populism," Rutte told supporters in The Hague after polls closed in the March 15 election."We want to stick to the course we have -- safe and stable and prosperous."
With more than 90 percent of votes counted, Rutte's center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was projected to win 33 of the 150 seats in parliament, down from 41 in a 2012 election but well above opinion-poll predictions.
Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV)) was in second on 20 seats, a gain of five, with the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and centrist Democrats 66 tied for third with 19 seats each.
European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed congratulations and relief at Rutte's victory, with Juncker calling it "a vote for Europe, a vote against extremists."
Millions of Dutch voters flocked to the polls in a near-record turnout that reached 81 percent, up from 75 percent in the last general election in 2012.
The VVD's result was better than opinion polls throughout the campaign suggested and will be seen as a mandate for Rutte to form his third cabinet since 2010.
Firebrand Wilders' party failed to make an anticipated breakthrough, falling short after polls during the campaign forecast close to 30 seats at times.
The CDA and the Democrats 66 party both increased the number of their seats in parliament compared to the previous election.
Rutte's coalition partner since 2012, the Labor Party (PvdA), fared badly, being reduced to nine seats, down from 38. The decline was even greater than that predicted by opinion polls.
The election is the first of three this year seen as tests of antiestablishment sentiment in the European Union and the 28-member bloc's chances of survival after Britain's vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's election as U.S. president in 2016.
Wilders, reacting to the projected results on Twitter, said Rutte "has not seen the last of me."
"Thank you PVV Voters! We won seats!" Wilders said in a tweet. "The first victory is in! And Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!!"
Rutte said after casting his vote that the election was an opportunity to stop the "domino effect of the wrong sort of populism."
The first country to congratulate the Netherlands on a "terrific" election result was Germany, which also faces parliamentary elections in September.
The anti-immigration, eurosceptic Alternative for Germany party, allied with Wilders, is hoping to enter the Berlin federal parliament for the first time.
"Netherlands oh Netherlands you are a champion," Peter Altmaier, the head of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, tweeted in Dutch. "Congratulations on this terrific result."
The Netherlands and Germany have both been embroiled in a diplomatic conflict with Turkey, after they refused to allow Turkish officials to campaign in favor of a referendum next month to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enhanced powers.
After the vote in the Netherlands, the attention will turn to a presidential election in France, with opinion polls indicating that far-right politician Marine Le Pen is likely to make the runoff in May but lose to a centrist candidate.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, dpa, and AFP