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Dutch exit poll suggests neck and neck race between far right and center left in EU election

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — European Union parliamentary elections kicked off in the Netherlands on Thursday with an exit poll suggesting that Geert Wilders’ far-right party made big gains and was in a tight race with an alliance of social democrat
A bicyclist passes a billboard for the European Election opposite the Concertgebouw concert hall Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Voters in the European Union are set to elect lawmakers starting Thursday June 6th for the bloc's parliament. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — European Union parliamentary elections kicked off in the Netherlands on Thursday with an exit poll suggesting that Geert Wilders’ far-right party made big gains and was in a tight race with an alliance of social democrats and greens to emerge as the biggest party.

The poll results were a possible harbinger of strong electoral gains for the hard right in the European Union over four days of voting that ends Sunday. It also showed that the once unabashed pro-EU sentiment in one of the bloc's founding nations is now riven and conflicted over whether the Netherlands needs a more powerful EU or one in which the member states claw back power to their capitals.

Similar divisions have reverberated in campaigns from Finland to Portugal and from Belgium to Hungary.

The final NOS Ipsos exit poll indicated that Wilders’ Party for Freedom could win seven seats, up from just one in the last Parliament and that the center-left alliance would win eight of 31 European Parliament seats up for grabs in the Netherlands.

Because of the nature of exit polls, it was too tight to declare a winner before the results are announced late Sunday after all 27 EU nations have voted.

Even though it fell short of his stunning and overwhelming win in Dutch national elections in November, Wilders was still jubilant. “It is crystal clear that there is only one big winner,” he told reporters.

Wilders now wants to build on that popularity and set the tone for much of the bloc, with calls to curtail the powers of EU institutions so that member states have more autonomy on issues such as migration and climate change measures.

Paradoxically, like many hard-right leaders across the bloc including Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and French opposition leader Marine Le Pen, Wilders wants more power in the European Parliament, so he can weaken it from within.

Final results for the entire EU will be announced in Brussels after polls close Sunday night.

Frans Timmermans, the former EU climate czar and leader of the social democrat-greens alliance, was equally happy that after badly losing national elections to Wilders in November, the group now at least stood its ground.

“Since November, there is so often the image in a lot of other countries that Wilders is directing things, Wilders decides, Wilders alone is the Netherlands. Now we have shown that the Netherlands is still the diverse country we have long been,” Timmermans said. "It also shows that there is a majority — adding up all the pro-European seats — that wants the Netherlands to help build a stronger Europe.”

Wilders though insists the groundswell comes from exactly the opposite direction and wants a broad alliance of hard-right parties to break up the traditional coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists, pro-business Liberals and Greens.

Since the last EU election in 2019, populist, far-right and extremist parties now lead governments in three EU nations, are part of governing coalitions in several others, and appear to have surging public support across the continent.

The EU elections are the world’s second-biggest exercise in democracy behind the election in India, and the stakes are high.

Almost 400 million voters will be electing 720 members of the European Parliament to five-year terms. They will come from beyond the Arctic circle to the edges of Africa and Asia. The results will have an impact on issues ranging from global climate policies and defense to migration and geopolitical relations with China and the United States.

There was some early voting in some countries, but the Netherlands is the only EU country to start its single-day vote so early, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday and the rest of the EU nations over the weekend. Europe-wide results will be announced Sunday night after all member states have completed voting.

The number of members elected in each country depends on the size of the population, ranging from six for Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to 96 for Germany. In 2019, Europeans elected 751 lawmakers. Following the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU in 2020, the number of MEPs fell to 705. Some of the 73 seats previously held by British MEPs were redistributed to other member states.

The lawmakers, known as Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, can vote on a wide range of legislation covering banking rules, climate, agriculture, fisheries, security and justice. They also vote on the EU budget, which is crucial to the implementation of European policies, including, for instance, the aid delivered to Ukraine.

After the election, MEPs will elect their president at the first plenary session, from July 16-19. Then, most likely in September, they will nominate the president of the European Commission, following a proposal made by the member states. In 2019, von der Leyen narrowly won a vote to become the first woman to head the institution. She is seeking a second term.


Associated Press writer Raf Casert reported from Brussels.

Mike Corder And Raf Casert, The Associated Press