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(Reuters) -- Far-right populist Geert Wilders, who has vowed to end immigration in the Netherlands, won a major victory in Wednesday's parliamentary election, according to an exit poll.
Beating all predictions, the exit poll put Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) on 35 of the 150 seats, 10 seats ahead of its closest rival, former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans' Labour/Green Left combination. That margin was much larger than expected and seemed too large for the outcome to change.
Exit polls are usually reliable, with a margin of error of about two seats.
At a café in The Hague, Wilders' supporters erupted in cheers, hugged each other and raised their arms.
In a victory speech, Wilders promised to end a "tsunami of asylum and immigration."
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Wilders rode a wave of anti-immigration sentiment, blaming the housing shortage on influxes of asylum seekers and drawing on widespread concern about the cost of living and the overburdened health system.
Wilders' victory came two months after the populist Robert Fico, also opposed to the EU, came to power in Slovakia, promising to halt military aid to Ukraine and reduce immigration.
Last year, Italy formed its most right-wing government since World War II following Giorgia Meloni's election victory.
Wilders' incendiary views on Islam have prompted death threats and he has been living under heavy police protection for years.
Abroad, his comments about the Prophet Muhammad have sparked sometimes violent protests in countries with large Muslim populations, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt. In Pakistan, a religious leader issued a fatwa (a legal pronouncement) against him.
A self-proclaimed admirer of Hungary's Victor Orban, Wilders is also explicitly opposed to the European Union, urging the Netherlands to control borders, significantly reduce its payments to the Union and block the entry of new members.
He has also repeatedly said that the Netherlands should stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, claiming that it needs them to be able to defend itself. However, none of the parties with which he could form a government share these ideas.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative VVD party came in third with 24 seats, according to exit polls.
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Mark Rutte will step down as Prime Minister after 13 years. (Credit: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Immigration — the issue that led to the fall of Rutte's last cabinet after 13 years in power — was a key issue in the campaign.
Wilders is expected to try to form a right-wing government with the VVD and the emerging "New Social Contract" party, which together would have a majority of 79 seats.
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The talks could be difficult, as both parties have expressed serious doubts about the possibility of working with Wilders, due to his outspoken anti-Islam stance, which includes the goal of banning all mosques and Korans in the Netherlands.
"I am confident that we can come to an agreement," Wilders said in his victory speech. "I fully understand that we should not take any action that is unconstitutional."
His party is now too big to ignore, he said, adding that he was prepared to lead the country.
Wilders is internationally known for his anti-Islam politics and was convicted by a Dutch judge of discrimination after insulting Moroccans at a campaign rally in 2014.
Rutte will remain in office until a new government is formed, likely in the first half of 2024.