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Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte will likely take the lead in forming the next government in the Netherlands after an exit poll gave his party a clear lead over rivals including populist challenger Geert Wilders.

Mr Rutte’s VVD is expected to win 31 seats out of 150 – a dozen more than its nearest rivals, which include the centre-right CDA, liberal centrist D66 and Mr Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, which are all on track for 19 seats, according to an exit poll by Ipsos.

While the PVV had a comfortable lead at the start of the year, voters blanched at the prospect of backing the party at the ballot box. Although this is a small improvement on Mr Wilders’ performance in 2012, it would still be fewer seats than he gained in 2010.

The Dutch vote was the first in a trio of crucial European elections in which populist politicians had emerged as significant contenders. Analysts had predicted that a strong showing for Mr Wilders would have bolstered the campaign of Front National leader Marine Le Pen and German populist party Alternative for Germany, ahead of crucial elections in both countries.

GroenLinks was set for 16 seats, having benefited from the collapse of its centre-left rivals Labour.

Other parties are set for an unhappy night. Labour was on track for a worse than expected battering and may lose three-quarters of its MPs, falling from 38 in 2012 to potentially just nine. The party bore the brunt of anger at unpopular reforms, such as increasing the retirement age, that was pushed through by the grand coalition between Labour and the VVD.

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