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Pro-business, Labor tie in exit poll

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AMSTERDAM – Exit polls in Dutch elections Wednesday showed the pro-business VVD party and Labor finished on top in a dead heat, dealing a blow to the ruling Christian Democrats and giving an anti-Islam party its best showing ever.

The projections showed the two largest parties each winning 31 seats in the 150-seat parliament.

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AP – A woman casts her vote at a polling station set up in the the living room of the Westhoff family in Marle, …
Experts said the results, if they hold up, will create a chaotic race to form a coalition commanding a 76-seat majority. Neither the right nor the left appears able to put together a government without major comprise among rival ideologies.

The most likely alliance would be a centrist coalition of VVD, Labor, and two smaller parties on the left, the Green-Left and Democrats-66.

Other possibilities might include Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party, who campaigned to stop immigration from Muslim countries. The Freedom Party won 22 seats — more than doubling its current holding of nine.

Wilders' polarizing politics made him unsavory for all other parties, but his huge gains put him in a position not to be ignored.

"For me it's absolutely logical that we'll speak with the Freedom Party after this result," said Hans van Baalen, a VVD member of parliament.

The Christian Democrats of the outgoing prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, won 21 — cut nearly in half.

The rest of the seats were split among six more parties, according to the exit polls.

The configurations of possible coalitions were so complex, involving such disparate parties, that it could take months for potential allies to negotiate a framework on which they can govern.

The results were a stunning departure from pre-election polls, which had showed for weeks Mark Rutte's VVD party holding a commanding lead with Labor trailing far behind.

"It's going to be a long night," said Lilianne Ploumen, chairwoman of the Labor party.

The VVD has pledged to slash the burgeoning deficit without raising taxes, mainly by cutting welfare programs and stimulating new jobs. Labor has criticized the program as harmful to the poor.

The Labor Party of former Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen wants to preserve government social programs, raise taxes and make it easier for immigrants to integrate rather than punishing those that fail. The result was a victory for Cohen, Amsterdam's popular mayor who resigned in March to lead his flagging party in the campaign. The last time the Netherlands had a Labor prime minister was in 2002.

The preliminary projections were based on exit polls at 39 polling stations conducted by the private polling company Synovate, and commissioned by the country's three largest news organizations, the state-funded NOS broadcaster, RTL and the ANP news agency.

In recent years, the projection released immediately after voting ended have proven accurate within a few seats.

Returns from the 12 million eligible voters were expected through the night, and the leaders of the main parties were scheduled to appear on national television late Wednesday once the trend is clear.

The election was precipitated when Balkenende's center-right coalition collapsed in February over the Labor Party's refusal to extend the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has barely been mentioned in the campaign, which instead focused on traditional issues of immigration and the economy.

Wilders, the maverick politician who denounces Islam as a fascist religion, enjoyed a surge of popularity last year with a program that included a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women. But his popularity fell back dramatically after attention shifted to the European financial crisis and demands to cut the country's deficit, now predicted to run at 6.3 percent of GDP this year.

The focus on economic issues helped Rutte's party gain prominence. Although it has joined several center-right and center-left coalitions before, it has not led a government since before World War I.

"This country spends too much. For a lot of people it's better to collect social security than to work," said Willem Bosma, 32, a civil servant and VVD supporter casting his vote in Amsterdam's main train station.

Although less outspoken than Wilders, Rutte has warned that "welfare tourism" with open doors to migrants from Muslim countries and eastern Europe who would be a drain on the economy.

Last Updated ( Friday, 11 June 2010 20:15 )  
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