Far-right election breakthrough shocks Netherlands

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The spectacular election breakthrough of the far-right anti-Muslim Party for Freedom shocked the Netherlands on Thursday as two mainstream parties braced for weeks of coalition haggling.

The pro-business Liberal VVD party had 31 seats and the Labour party (PvdA) 30, with 98 percent of the vote counted. But far-right PVV leader Geert Wilders demanded a share of government after his party came third with 24, more than doubling its seats in the 150 member parliament.

"Nobody in The Hague can bypass the PVV anymore," said Wilders, whose party wants an end to immigration from Muslim countries and a ban on new mosques and the Koran.

"We want to be part of the new government," declared Wilders, a distinctive figure with his shock of dyed blonde hair who has to live at secret addresses because of his controversial political stand.

"The impossible has happened," he told a party gathering, hailing the PVV as "the biggest winner" of the election. "The Netherlands chose more security, less crime, less immigration and less Islam."

The Christian Democratic Action party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was pushed into fourth place and he resigned as party leader and from his parliamentary seat after eight years as Dutch premier.

Having been a part of nearly every Dutch government since World War II, the Christian Democrats lost 20 seats to end at 21. Balkenende's latest coalition collapsed in February over the country's Afghanistan military mission.

"A divided Netherlands" said the front page headline on the NRC Next newspaper summing up the election results.

With economic concerns dominating the campaign, the Liberal party led by Mark Rutte had been ahead in pre-election polls with a promise to cut public spending by about 45 billion euros (54 billion dollars) over the next four years. The VVD's support appeared to drain away in the final 48 hours though it still increased its number of lawmakers from 21.

Labour, led by Amsterdam ex-mayor Job Cohen, had promised more "careful" savings, the retention of social benefits and higher taxes for the rich. It lost two seats from the previous parliament.

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. Voter turnout was 74 percent, the lowest since 1998.

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

Rutte has set a target date of July 1 for the establishment of a new government. "We do not exclude any party," he said ahead of the polls, as asked about a possible coalition with the far right.

He was previously reported as saying that a coalition with Labour was unlikely. Cohen has ruled out cooperation with the PVV.

The maverick Wilders has earned notoriety around the world with his campaign 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 last year to stop him spreading "hatred and violent messages."

The deadlocked result means that the PVV cannot be ruled out of coalition talks which observers say will be long and complicated.

"Never has the voter's message been so mixed. A stable governing coalition with three parties does not seem possible," said NRC Next daily. "Despair over coalition puzzle," said a headline in Het Financieele Dagblad, the financial daily.

"Outcome shreds political landscape" commented the liberal Volkskrant daily.

Among the other parties, the Socialist Party got 15 seats, down from 25, the Green GroenLinks and centrist D66 both made gains to get 10 and Christian Union five, losing one.

Official results will be released next Tuesday.

© 2010 AFP

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