Millions of Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in a key test of the "patriotic revolution" promised by far-right MP Geert Wilders, as final opinion polls showed his support deflating.
Following last year's shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump's victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being closely watched to gauge support for populism in Europe ahead of key elections in France and Germany this year.
Wilders voted in a school in The Hague, mobbed by television cameras, just after final polls showed he was trailing the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"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.
"I think that with what's happening in America, perhaps in other European countries, that once again the normal people want to be patriotic in their own country that has its own sovereignty again."
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between 28 parties in the running.
"This is a crucial election for The Netherlands," Rutte said 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."
Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country -- one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.
- 'Patriot or irritating?' -Final polls appeared to show Rutte consolidating a lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats -- well down on its 40 outgoing seats.
After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging onto second place with between 19 and 22 MPs -- up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.
Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU.
"I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world," said Esther Zand, 52, who voted for Labour.
"He's a rather irritating gentleman," she added of Wilders.
Snapping at his heels are long-standing parties the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs. Both would be natural coalition partners for Rutte.
"I am hoping for a strong centre" coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft.
"But I'm afraid it's going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government," he told AFP.
Seeking to highlight his differences with the fiery, Twitter-loving Wilders, Rutte has been highlighting the country's economic growth and stability during his six years in power.
Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gatecrashed the scene with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective and Nazi jibes at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam.
Rutte's handling of the crisis -- barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another -- appears to have boosted his image.
Wilders though won support Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him "a patriot".
- 'Breath of fresh air' -Lines formed early at some polling stations, and first estimates showed turnout was slightly higher at this point in the day than in the last vote in 2012, when final participation was about 74 percent.
Voting ends at 2000 GMT with exit polls expected soon after. The official count is being done by hand following fears of possible hacking.
It reportedly takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority.
"I voted strategically," said Roger Overdevest, 47, adding that he voted VVD, not "as a vote against Wilders, but as a vote against the left".
While traditional Labour appears to be sinking, the ecologist left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver could win 16 to 18 seats.
"I hope GroenLinks will win. Jesse Klaver is a breath of fresh air. To me the current cabinet has not done enough for the environment," said lawyer Marloes van Heugten.