After a neck-and-neck contest with the Labour party, the VVD emerged victorious, garnering 31 of 150 seats in parliament, with 98 percent of the votes counted. "It looks like, for the first time in history, the VVD will be the biggest party in the Netherlands," VVD leader Mark Rutte told supporters Thursday morning, when preliminary results showed Labour would be left with 30 seats. The right-wing liberals may have shaken the social democrats, led by former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, but never has the biggest party in parliament occupied so few seats, and never was the margin seperating it from the runner-up so slim.Geert Wilders' PVV won the most in the election. Wilders, who is internationally known for his unequivocal criticism of Islam, went from 9 to 24 seats in parliament. While he ran a muted campaign and polls predicted he would barely double his seats, Wilders proved especially popular in the south-east of the country. His growing following there is part of the reason the Christian democratic party of incumbent prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende was halved at the polls. The CDA lost 20 of its 41 seats and will now be the fourth party in Dutch parliament.
The devastating result for the CDA who have led the country for all but eight of the last 30 years, forced prime minister Balkenende to step down as his party's leader. After the voters had "sent a clear message," Balkenende said, resigning was "part of his political responsibility". Never since the Second World War have Dutch voters punished an incumbent prime minister quite so hard.
Look left or right?
The power shifts and slim margins show the Dutch electorate is more fractured than ever. Left-wing liberal D66 moved up from 3 to 10 seats, while green party GroenLinks grew from 7 to 10. The Socialist Party lost 10 of its 25 seats and the ChristenUnie, the orthodox Christian party that was the minority partner in the CDA-Labour coalition that fell in February, went from 6 to 5. Fundamentalist Christian party SGP and the Party for Animals both retained two seats. Turnout was low, at 74 percent.
The question is if Rutte, who can now become prime minister and take the lead in forming a coalition, will look to the left or to the right to tackle the Dutch budget deficit and push reforms. Rutte could augment a VVD-Labour coalition with the green party and left-wing liberals, which would give him a 81 seat majority, or he could ask anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and what is left of the CDA to form a government with the backing of 76 members of parliament.
Wilders: 'ready to govern'
Many may wonder if Wilders is willing to make the compromises that come with multi-party coalitions, but the PVV leader himself announced he is ready. "I hope that we can govern. They can't get around us or push us aside," he said after he learnt about the results. It remains to be seen if others want to include Wilders, who defected from the VVD in 2004 over his position that Turkey should never be allowed into the EU. Within the CDA especially, concerns have been raised about the way he has lashed out at religion. And the VVD is looking to raise the state pension age from 65 to 67, something Wilders has sworn won't happen if he is included in government.
The alternative is a revival of the so-called Purple coalition, which ruled from 1994 to 2002. Under prime minister Wim Kok, Labour led a coalition with VVD and D66. Those three parties do not have a majority today, but GroenLinks seems a likely candidate to join such a government. This coalition would demand a significant number of compromises from all sides though, as the VVD wants to push austerity measures of 30 billion euros, while the left-leaning parties have said they don't want to crush the recovering economy and spare the underprivileged in society.
Finally, the option of a cabinet of national unity composed of the centrist parties VVD, Labour and CDA has been mentioned. But what they promised voters during the campaign differs widely and such a government would exclude winners PVV, GroenLinks and D66 while including losers CDA and Labour, the latter of which lost three seats.
Coalition negotiations look set to start on Thursday and, according to Mark Rutte, will be "very difficult".