Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party (PVV) has suffered an electoral blow in The Netherlands’ EU elections, while the pro-European liberal party D66 is expected to claim the largest number of seats, according to an exit poll released on Thursday (22 May). The real winner may be abstention however.

There was a suprising outcome after a day of voting for the European Parliament in The Netherlands: while the Dutch eurosceptic Geert Wilders dominated media and the public debate throughout the campaign, it now looks like his PVV party has lost two seats in the next EU Parliament.

“From five to three seats; it is quiet at the PVV,” tweeted NOS’s political journalist Michiel Breedveld yesterday evening.

While the far-right party made losses, the left-liberal D66 and the centre-right CDA claimed victory. These two parties are neck-and-neck for the first spot, coming out at 15.6% and 15.2% of votes respectively.

The outcome is based on provisional results of an exit poll conducted by the pollster Ipsos. Final results will be published after polling stations in all European countries close on Sunday evening.

Ruling parties in the Dutch government managed to stand their ground, the polls suggest. While the socialist PvdA dropped by 2.6 percentage points, it is set to keep its three seats in the EU Parliament. The centre-right liberal VVD gains 1.1 points but remains at three seats as well.

There were also a few surprises. The Netherlands has no electoral threshold, which has put smaller parties on the map. The two newcomers amongst the Dutch parties in the EU Parliament, are the Party for the Animals (PvdD), focusing on animal welfare and ecological issues, and the 50PLUS party, targeting seniors. Both end up with one seat.

Voter apathy beats anti-EU sentiment

Speaking to Dutch TV channel NOS, the campaign figurehead of the victorious D66 party, MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, said: “Clearly, the pro-European message has more support [than expected]. The message is: people want to go ahead with Europe.”

But people surveyed by broadcasters throughout the day showed a gloomier picture of voter interest. The key challenge at European elections is still getting people to the voting booth: “I just don’t know what to vote,” several of the respondents reacted.

The overall turnout in The Netherlands remained stable at a dramatically low level. 37% of voters showed up for yesterday vote; 36% did so in the previous EU elections in 2009.

Key issues in the campaign running up to these elections were the economic woes of the single currency, and The Netherlands’ membership of the EU. But populist figurehead Geert Wilders failed to convince the undecided voters, polls show.

“65% of PVV-voters stayed home,” Wilders reacted late on Thursday. “Therefore, I can’t conclude that The Netherlands suddenly become more europhile.”

Managing director of transparency organisation VoteWatch and former Dutch MEP, Michiel van Hulten, argued the poll does reflects a broader change of mind in The Netherlands. “The media might have misjudged the anti-European sentiment. The economy in The Netherlands has also picked up some pace, which could have convinced voters to stand by the EU,” van Hulten told EurActiv.

But Simon Rooze, who tracked the Dutch elections for the PR agency FleishmanHillard, reacted more cautiously. “Turnout was very low and so those feeling negatively about the EU presumably weren’t motivated to cast their ballot,” he told EurActiv.

Caution prevails: final results on Sunday

The Netherlands, together with the United Kingdom, were the first to open the polling stations for the 2014 EU elections. Contrary to other member states, media reported on the exit polls. Apart from the NOS results, other small-scale polls showed similar outcomes.

Results in the UK, which held its elections on Thursday as well, are unknown until Sunday night. The European Commission said yesterday that the publication of exit polls posed no problem, but warned against announcing official results until 23.00pm on Sunday.

Putting out such exit polls is a risk, the Dutch experience shows. In the local elections, last March, media reported distorted figures that showed a record loss for the CDA party but appeared untruthful in the final result.

“We emphasise consistently that this is not the actual result,” the editor-in-chief of NOS, Marcel Gelauff, told De Volkskrant. “But with just 26 seats to divide [amongst the Dutch parties], chances are more slim that we make mistakes.”

A citizen initiative organised by the populist news website also called on Dutch citizens to head out to the polling stations and demand the results from the presidents of these stations, a method justified by Dutch electoral law.

Another reason for caution is that such partial results could influence voters in other EU member states. So does this form a prelude for the EU elections being held in other member states in the coming days?

According to Rooze, “politicians across the border will congratulate their political sister-parties, hoping to get media attention. But whether this will have an impact, I’m not sure.”

“Every country is different. You can’t take any conclusions based on this,” van Hulten agrees. “But the whole of Europe did just focus on The Netherlands and so it might affect the mood somewhat.”