dutch pm balkenende 88.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's center-right Christian Democrats won the most seats in the Dutch elections, but nearly complete returns showed a sharply splintered - and possibly deadlocked - parliament with no alliance winning a clear mandate to govern.
The Dutch appeared split between a government coalition that has been tough on immigration and pro-business, and socialists _ led by the Labor Party _ promoting a softer approach.
With more than 98 percent of the vote reported from Wednesday's election, it was clear no combination of left- or right-wing parties will easily muster a majority in parliament.
The emerging result portends weeks, possibly months, of coalition haggling, with smaller parties in a position to exact a heavy price for their support. Even if talks are successful for one side or the other, the outcome could be an unwieldy and unstable government that would have difficulty completing a four-year term.
Analysts said the election highlighted the nation's polarization, with big gains scored by parties well to the left and right of center.
That could lead the mainstream centrists to re-examine their rivalries and join together, but that won't be easy. "They need time to adapt to one another," said Jos de Beus, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam.
An upbeat Balkenende pledged to "build on the foundation we laid." But he acknowledged the result was "complicated," and said coalition negotiations would require "a level head and perseverance."
"It's chaos. It is extremely difficult to distill a government out of these results," said Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm of the free-market Liberal party, Balkenende's current government partner.
"The jigsaw can still be laid in many different ways," said Labor's No. 2 candidate, Nebahat Albayrak.
Balkenende's Christian Democrats, cashing in on an economic revival and popular measures to crack down on immigration, won with a wider-than-expected margin over Labor, its closest rival, led by Wouter Bos - capturing at least 41 seats to Labor's 32, according to the partial results.
"If the polls are right, I'm very happy because we're still the biggest party," said Marja van Bijsterveld, the chairwoman of the Christian Democrats. "We had great candidates, a strong program and a leader who was solid as a rock."
But it is still not enough for a majority in parliament, and even with the free market Liberals, any coalition would need to bring several more parties on board to reach a majority of 76 seats in the 150-member legislature.
"What is clear is that this Cabinet has no mandate to continue," said Michiel van Hulten, Labor's campaign chairman. "That is good news. The Netherlands has opted for change."
At the same time, no combination of leftist parties appears capable of commanding a majority, leaving open the possibility of an uncomfortable alliance among parties on opposite sides of the spectrum, and possibly a "grand coalition" centering on the two largest parties.
The biggest winner Wednesday was the Socialist Party, led by political veteran Jan Marijnissen, which went from the nine places it currently holds to 26 seats.
Right-wing maverick Geert Wilders also had cause to celebrate. After leading a one-man faction in the outgoing parliament, he won nine seats on the strength of his powerful anti-immigrant message.
"We are a normal party that wants lower taxes and tougher sentences, but we are also proud of our culture and against the rise of Islam in Dutch society," he said. "There are enough Muslims in the Netherlands and enough mosques."
About 6 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim.
The country has been engaged in a tumultuous debate over immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism following two political murders tied to Islam in recent years.
But immigration and Islam were barely mentioned until the final days of the campaign, when Balkenende's hard-line immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, said the government intended to outlaw burqas and other face-covering apparel.
Though he agreed on the need to control immigration, Bos criticized some of the government's harsh measures.
"On one side ... we have to ask people to prepare to come to the Netherlands so they can adapt to our society's core values," Bos said in a televised debate Tuesday. "But we must also ask our society to do something: Make people feel welcome here."
Balkenende's ruling coalition collapsed in June after a minor party, D66, pulled out to protest Verdonk's botched attempt to revoke the citizenship of Somali-born lawmaker and strident critic of radical Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In a first for Europe, the Party for Animals won two seats. The animal rights' party wants to curb inhumane practices in industrial farming.