Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte appears to have defeated a strong challenge by his far-right rival Geert Wilders in the key election, exit polls have predicted.
Rutte's Liberal VVD would scoop up 31 seats in the new parliament making it the largest party, with Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) sharing second place on 19 seats with two other parties, the public broadcaster NOS said.
Millions of Dutch had flocked to the polls yesterday in a near record turnout, with stakes high in an election pitting Rutte against his far-right anti-Islam rival.
Following last year's shock Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being watched as a gauge of the strength of populism on the continent ahead of key elections in France and Germany.
If the results are confirmed, Rutte will likely get the chance to form the next coalition and could possibly turn to the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democracy party D66, which both matched Wilders with a predicted 19 seats.
Wilders had pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU, if he was elected the largest party in the parliament.
"Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay," Wilders said, voting earlier.
He has however increased the showing of his party which had 12 MPs in the outgoing parliament.
Trumpeting the country's economic growth and stability, Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country -- one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding member of the European Union.
"This is a crucial election for The Netherlands," said Rutte, the leader of the Liberal VVD party, as he voted.
"This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point... To stop this... Domino effect of the wrong sort of populism."
Queues began early at polling stations on a warm spring day and turnout reached 81 percent, just below the record of 88 percent set in 1977.
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters had been wavering between the record 28 parties running.
In a rare move, polling stations in Rotterdam and The Hague were allowed to stay open beyond the 2000 GMT closing time in order to allow all those in line to cast their ballots.
In The Hague's city centre where many residents are from Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese backgrounds, a steady flow of voters -- many of them women wearing headscarfs -- came and went at polling stations.
One Muslim voter told AFP she was afraid of Wilders' fiery anti-Islam rhetoric.
"If you have one person who criticises, it's OK. But every time another person comes and then another one... Then it's really hard to defend yourself," student Khadiga Kallouh, 22 said.
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