Beating all predictions, the Ipsos exit poll put Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) at 35 out of 150 seats, 9 seats ahead of the closest rival, former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans' Labour/Green Left combination. That margin was far greater than expected.
The party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the conservative VVD, was in third place at 23 seats, the exit poll showed.
Known as the "Dutch Trump" both for his bouffant dyed hair and firebrand rhetoric, Wilders' anti-Islam, anti-immigrant and anti-EU message appeared to have finally swept him to first place in the 2023 Dutch parliamentary elections.
In a video clip posted on social media shortly after the publication of the exit poll, Wilders was seen celebrating the PVV's performance.
In his first response to the early results, Wilders vowed to "return" the Netherlands to the Dutch.
"We will have to find ways to live up to the hopes of our voters, to put the Dutch back on number one," said Wilders. "Now is the time for parties to look for agreements, we can't be ignored."
Lurch to the right
If the exit poll results are confirmed in the final results, Wilders' victory marks a sharp lurch to the right that will be viewed with trepidation in Brussels – the PVV has promised a referendum on Dutch membership of the European Union.
"It might not be what other parties in Europe or in other countries strive for but, hey, that's democracy," the 60-year-old told reporters as he voted.
Immigration was the key topic of the referendum campaign and his hardline stance, including closing the borders and deporting illegal immigrants, seemed to have resonated with Dutch voters.
Although Wilders appeared to have triumphed in the polls, it is not clear he will be able to garner the necessary support for a broad enough coalition to form a workable government.
All the leaders of the three other top parties have said they would not serve in a PVV-led coalition.
Kate Parker, from the Economist Intelligence Unit, said it would lead to "constitutional stalemate" in the EU's fifth-largest economy.
Wilders is known as the "Dutch Trump", partly for his swept-back dyed hairstyle that resembles the former US president, but also for his rants against immigrants and Muslims
From calling Moroccans "scum" to holding competitions for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed
, Wilders has built a career from his self-appointed mission to stop an "Islamic invasion" of the West.
During the campaign, he sought to tone down his message, saying he could put some of his more strident views on Islam
"in the freezer".
He stressed he would be prime minister for everyone "regardless of their religion, background, sex or whatever", insisting the cost-of-living crisis was a bigger priority.
But as his opponents never tired of pointing out, his PVV manifesto tells a different story.
With hallmark Wilders rhetoric, the manifesto says: "Asylum-seekers feast on delightful free cruise-ship buffets while Dutch families have to cut back on groceries."
The programme proposes a ban on Islamic schools, Korans and mosques. Headscarves would be banned from government buildings. "The Netherlands is not an Islamic country," it adds.
A "binding referendum" would be held on a "Nexit" -- the idea of the Netherlands leaving the EU. The PVV also calls for an "immediate halt" to development aid.
On foreign policy, the parallels to Trump are clear. "Netherlands first," trumpets the manifesto.
The PVV would move the Dutch embassy to Jerusalem to support Israel, a "close friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East".
'I am under attack'
Wilders has remained defiant despite brushes with the law and death threats that have meant he has been under constant police protection since 2004.
"I don't regret fighting for freedom," Wilders told AFP in an interview ahead of elections in 2021. "Of course I take a stand. I am under attack, my country is under attack."
He was found guilty of discrimination in 2016 over comments he made against Moroccans living in the Netherlands and has previously likened the Koran to Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf", saying both books should be banned.
He was forced to shelve plans for a cartoon competition of the Prophet Mohammed in 2018 after receiving death threats.
Wilders was competing in his sixth election, having come close to pulling off a stunning upset more than once.
"When I left my old party (the VVD)... I said one day we will become the biggest party," Wilders told reporters while casting his vote.
If the exit polls are confirmed, his decades-old prediction looks to have come true.
source: France 24