Tight Dutch election leads to coalition talks

Dutch politicians scrambled Thursday to sort out who will form the country's next government, after polarized voters backed parties on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

Dutch politicians scrambled Thursday to sort out who will form the country's next government, after polarized voters backed parties on both the right and the left with very different ideas on budget cuts and Muslim immigration.

After a neck-in-neck race between the left-leaning Labour party and the pro-business VVD Party, the VVD claimed "apparent" victory Thursday and plans to take the lead in what may be weeks or even months of negotiations over building a new governing coalition.

"I would like to see a new cabinet put together as soon as possible because of the seriousness of the economic crisis," VVD leader and would-be prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters Thursday.

VVD party leader Mark Rutte gestures as he addresses his supporters on election night in The Hague, Netherlands on Wednesday. ((Evert-Jan Daniels/Associated Press))

"It's a complicated result, but on the other hand the sovereign voter has spoken, and it's up to politicians to put together a good cabinet with it."

With 99.5 per cent of votes counted, the VVD led Labour 31 seats to 30 in the 150-seat parliament.

Under the Dutch constitution, advisers will now visit Queen Beatrix later Thursday to discuss the results. Party leaders will do the same on Friday to inform her of their coalition preferences before she names someone to oversee preliminary negotiations.

Voters also gave a major boost to the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which scored its best-ever finish with 24 seats, up from nine.

However, the Freedom Party siphoned most of its gains from another party on the right: Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat, dropping from 41 to 21 seats.

Balkenende, who has led the government for eight years, said he is leaving politics. He will remain the caretaker premier until a new cabinet is installed.

Labour Party Leader Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam who was the other main candidate to become prime minister, congratulated Rutte with his win "conditionally."

The most likely outcome appears to be a centrist coalition with VVD and Labour combining with two smaller parties on the left, the Green-Left and Democrats-66, who both won 10 seats.

Major compromises

Yet neither the top two parties will be able to form a government without major compromises on ideology.

The VVD has pledged to slash the deficit by cutting government spending and welfare programs while Labour has criticized the program as harmful to the poor.

Labour wants to preserve government social programs, raise taxes on the wealthy and make it easier for immigrants to integrate rather than punishing those who fail.

Although not as outspoken against Muslims as Wilders, Rutte has also argued that immigrants who cannot contribute to the Dutch economy should not be allowed to come, and he would ban them from receiving welfare for 10 years after arrival.

In theory, Wilders and his Freedom Party could join the VVD and others in a right-wing cabinet — but Wilders' polarizing stances have made him unsavory to other parties. He is also under hate speech prosecution for comparing Islam to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Qur'an.

In addition, his economic platform is similar to that of the Socialists.

Wilders said he was willing to compromise in order to enter the cabinet.

Other parties may try "to shove us aside, but we must be taken seriously," Wilders said.

Altogether, 10 parties will be represented in parliament. Official results won't be released until June 15, when all oversee votes have been counted.