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A far-right party has emerged as the biggest winner in the Netherlands' election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Netherlands, the party led by a far-right, anti-Muslim populist emerged as the biggest winner of elections yesterday. It won the most seats in the Dutch parliament among dozens of parties, and it points to a trend of extremist populist parties gathering support throughout Europe. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is here. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the head of this party. Who is he, and what does he stand for?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. His name is Geert Wilders. He's 60 years old, and he's made a name for himself as a politician for his extreme anti-Muslim views that have been fueled by the country's migrant population, many of whom come from Muslim countries. He's called Islam a backward religion. He's made a call for his country to ban all mosques, and his views have prompted death threats. He's lived under police protection for years. He's also called for the Netherlands to exit the European Union. Here's what he said last night in his victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEERT WILDERS: (Speaking Dutch).

SCHMITZ: And, Ari, he's saying here that the Dutch voters have spoken, and they want to return the Netherlands to the Dutch and stop what he called a tsunami of asylum-seekers and migrants.

SHAPIRO: And does his party's strong performance suggest that that type of sentiment is common in the Netherlands today?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, for many years, Wilders and his Freedom Party have ridden the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Netherlands, and he's been a fixture in Dutch politics for a while. But he was generally seen as an extremist outlier in Dutch politics. But, you know, his party just won the most votes in yesterday's election, and this reflects a rising concern among voters about migration. But it is important to understand here that even though his party won the most votes, it was less than 25% of all votes. So he's not really a reflection of what most Dutch voters want. But it's also an important thing to understand that, with around two dozen parties involved in this election, 25% of the vote is a pretty strong showing. And Wilders is now in the position to try and bring in other parties to form a coalition government.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Politics in the Netherlands works differently than in the U.S. So in the parliamentary system, the winning party often has to work with other parties to form a government. Is Wilders going to have enough support from other parties to do that?

SCHMITZ: Well, Wilders' party was able to win 37 seats in a 150-seat parliament, so he's going to need support from at least two other major parties to secure a majority. For years, no other major party has been interested in teaming up with him. Several parties vowed never to do that, given his extreme views, but we are starting to see cracks in those promises. The new leader of the center-right party in the current government has appeared open to possibly forming a coalition with Wilders, and it's interesting. Her stance on this prior to Election Day prompted Wilders to actually tone down his anti-Muslim rhetoric. In fact, he told supporters last night he would not focus on banning mosques or the Quran, saying there would be more important issues to tackle. But many political observers are having a hard time believing that he's had this sudden change of heart.

SHAPIRO: Well, we don't know if Wilders is going to be the prime minister, but the Netherlands is one of the strongest economies in the European Union. And if Wilders becomes the leader of that country, what does it mean for its role as an EU member?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. You know, the Netherlands will definitely not be leaving the EU anytime soon. I mean, he wants to do that. But because it would require more than his party to support that, that's probably not going to happen. But his victory is the latest example of voters supporting an anti-immigrant, populist party. Back in September, a far-left party led by politician Robert Fico won the Slovakian election on a similar platform. And last year Italy elected a party that shares the same anti-immigrant beliefs. Even here in Germany, the far-right AfD party, also against immigration, is polling at better numbers than each of the three parties currently in power. So it is clear that Europeans are becoming more and more frustrated by what they see as out-of-control migration, and they're voting for parties who are promising to do something about that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIPOP CONSORTIUM SONG, "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.