The centre-right party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte looked ready to storm to a fourth consecutive election victory, despite the country's slow Covid-19 vaccination campaign and high numbers of coronavirus cases.
With nearly 88 per cent of votes counted, his VVD party was projected to win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, two more than in the 2017 election. It means Mr Rutte will be front of the queue when talks begin to form a new coalition government, although this could prove difficult with 16 parties each forecast to win at least one seat.
"We must have plans in place to unlock the country," Mr Rutte told MPs on Thursday.
A big winner was the pro-European D66 party, which was expected to gain an additional five seats to take its tally to 24. Mr Rutte said forming a coalition with the D66, led by former UN diplomat Sigrid Kaag, “would seem obvious”.
“I have always believed and that has been confirmed this evening, that people in the Netherlands are not extreme, but moderate and appreciate a positive attitude,” Ms Kaag said on Wednesday night.
Mr Rutte said the Netherlands gave the VVD “an overwhelming vote of confidence and it is humbling. It is also forcing us to do everything we can to make a success out of it".
“The agenda before us is enormous,” he said. “In the coming weeks and months, we have to lead the Netherlands through the corona crisis.”
Another big winner was the far-right Forum for Democracy, which built its platform by campaigning against Covid-19 lockdown measures. It was projected to quadruple its number of seats to eight.
The anti-Islam Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders was expected to lose a handful of seats and become the third largest party in parliament.
The Green Left party, which performed well in 2017, was forecast to lose half its 14 seats.
Mr Rutte has led the Netherlands since 2010 and currently heads a caretaker government with the Christian Democrats and D66, which is likely to make up the core of the coalition again.
The voter turnout was 83 per cent despite the pandemic. The Netherlands’ Covid-19 death toll is 16,000.
Ms Kaag was the Netherlands' Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation in the outgoing government. Earlier this year she blocked any further release of government funds to Islamic Relief Worldwide, which was one of four charitable groups that had submitted an application to distribute more than 37 million euros ($44.8m) in a January tender.
Ms Kaag said she had learnt in December of the allegations linking IRW to the Muslim Brotherhood. "Based on this information, I have decided not to subsidise Islamic Relief Worldwide," she said.