Dutch pro-business party claims victory in elections
Result could mean weeks of haggling to form a coalition
AMSTERDAM — The pro-business VVD party claimed victory in Dutch elections early today, as voters in the Netherlands continued a Europe-wide shift to the political right and rewarded parties that pledged to cut government spending and discourage immigration.
“It appears as if for the first time in our history the VVD has become the largest party in the Netherlands,’’ would-be prime minister Mark Rutte told chanting supporters in the seaside town of Scheveningen.
With 96.5 percent of votes counted, Rutte’s party led left-leaning Labor by 31 seats to 30 in the 150-seat Parliament, a result that spelled weeks and possibly months of haggling between the two to fashion a ruling coalition.
Voters also gave a major boost to the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which scored its best-ever finish with 24 seats.
The Dutch swing to the right follows that of voters in Britain, who ousted the long-governing Labor Party last month, Germany, and earlier in France. Nationalist and anti-immigrant parties have been gaining force even in the traditionally open-door countries of Scandinavia.
The Netherlands’ governing Christian Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat, dropping to 21 seats — nearly half its current strength — and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told supporters he was leaving politics. Balkenende will remain caretaker premier until a new cabinet is installed.
The race between VVD and Labor was so tight that party leaders canceled their traditional postelection debate, saying they couldn’t discuss the results until they were sure what they were. Returns from the 12 million eligible voters were expected through the night, and the official results won’t be declared until June 15, when all votes from overseas have also been counted.
“It’s very exciting. But the real result is still to come, and it could go either way,’’ said Labor Party leader Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam who is the other main candidate to become prime minister.
Under the Dutch constitution, party leaders will next visit Queen Beatrix later today to inform her of their coalition preferences — the start of a long negotiating process.
Neither of the top parties will be able to form a government without major comprises on ideology. The most likely outcome appears to be a centrist coalition with VVD and Labor combining with two smaller parties on the left, the Green-Left and Democrats-66. In theory Wilders and his Freedom Party could play a role, but his polarizing stances have made him unsavory to other parties.