Exit polls points to deadlock in Dutch election

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The Netherlands' main liberal and left-wing parties remained deadlocked after a general election Wednesday that left anti-immigrant leader Geert Wilders as the big winner, an exit poll showed.

The Liberal party (VVD) led by Mark Rutte, which had campaigned on the need for deep spending cuts, and the Labour party (PvdA) of Job Cohen were tied on 31 seats each in the 150 seat parliament, said the poll carried out for the main Dutch media.

But Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV), which has demanded an end to immigration from Muslim countries and a ban on new mosques, celebrated taking its number of lawmakers from nine in the last parliament to 22.

The far-right leader with his distinctive shock of blonde hair called the result "magnificent".

The Party for Freedom even beat the conservative Christian Democratic Action of outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende into third place. The Christian Democrats lost 20 seats and finished with 21, according to the Synovate poll.

Balkenende reacted by resigning both his party's leadership and his seat in parliament.

"I have informed the party chairman that I will lay down my party membership with immediate effect," said Balkenende, 54, stressing he was taking "political responsibility" for the state of affairs.

The result left the VVD, which had 21 seats in the previous parliament, and the PvdA, which lost two seats, facing prolonged, tense coalition negotiations to see who will form the next government.

The election was the first in a eurozone country since the Greek financial crisis erupted and has been closely watched to see how the public reacts to Europe's wave of austerity.

The Liberals had led the Dutch pre-election polls with Rutte's promise to cut public spending by about 45 billion euros (54 billion dollars) over the next four years and by 20 billion euros a year from 2015. But their support appeared to drain away in the final 48 hours of lobbying the public.

Rutte had also promised to eradicate the public deficit which was 5.3 percent of GDP last year, shrink the government and parliament, lower income taxes and cap civil servant pay rises while raising the retirement age by two years to 67.

Labour had promised more "careful" savings, the retention of social benefits, and higher taxes for the rich.

Rutte has set a target date of July 1 for the establishment of a new government. "We do not exclude any party," he said in a televised debate on Tuesday night when asked about a possible coalition with the far right.

He was previously reported as saying that a coalition with Labour was unlikely, while Cohen has expressed a preference for a "progressive" coalition. Labour has ruled out any cooperation with the Party of Freedom.

The maverick Wilders has earned notoriety around the world with his campaign to ban the Koran in a bid to "stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands".

Wilders, who has called Islam a fascist religion and likens the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, is known abroad for his 17-minute commentary, Fitna, which was termed "offensively anti-Islamic" by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

He goes on trial in the Netherlands in October on charges of inciting racial hatred against Muslims. He was barred from entering Britain in 2009 to stop him spreading "hatred and violent messages."

Outgoing prime minister Balkenende was said by his foreign minister Maxime Verhagen to be "shocked" by the outcome.

Of the other parties, the Socialist Party got 16 seats, down from 25, the Greens got 11 seats (up from seven), the centrist D66 10 (up from 3) and the Christian Union five, down from six.

Some 10,000 polling stations were open for the election called after the government collapsed in February in a spat over military aid to Afghanistan.

© 2010 AFP

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