AMSTERDAM -- The Dutch prime minister's center-right Christian Democrats won the most seats in elections yesterday but nearly complete returns showed a sharply splintered -- and possibly deadlocked -- parliament with no alliance winning a clear mandate to govern.
The Dutch divided their votes between a government coalition that has been tough on immigration and probusiness, and socialists -- led by the Labor Party -- promoting a softer approach.
No combination of left- or right-wing parties will easily muster full control of parliament, state-funded broadcaster NOS predicted after about 95 percent of the vote was counted.
The vote could result in weeks, or months, of coalition haggling with smaller parties in a position to demand a heavy price for their support.
Even if a coalition emerges, the result could be an unstable government that would have difficulty completing a four-year term.
Still, an upbeat Prime Minister Jan Peter 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 partner in parliament.
"The jigsaw can still be laid in many different ways," said Nebahat Albayrak, a top-ranking Labor candidate.
Balkenende's Christian Democrats, cashing in on an economic revival and popular measures to crack down on immigration, easily beat its closest rival, Labor, winning 41 seats to Labor's 32, according to the unofficial late results.
Official results are not expected until Monday.
The Christian Democrats' narrow victory was predicted early in the day in an exit poll by the TNS Nipo market research group and released on RTL television -- based on responses from 27,000 voters.
"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's still not enough for a majority in parliament for the Christian Democrats.
Even in partnership with the free market Liberals, any Christian Democrat-led coalition would need to bring several more parties on board to reach a majority of 76 seats in the 150-member legislature.
At the same time, no combination of leftist parties appears capable of forming a majority, leaving open the possibility of an uncomfortable alliance among ideological foes, or even a "grand coalition" of the two largest parties.
The Socialist Party, led by political veteran Jan Marijnissen, made the biggest gains yesterday.
One exit poll predicted the Socialists would gain 17 seats, to 26, in the new parliament, nearly triple their current total.
Right-wing maverick Geert Wilders also had cause to celebrate. After leading a one-man faction in the outgoing parliament, his allies were forecast to win nine seats on the strength of his powerful anti-immigrant message.