Coalition talks begin after tight Dutch vote

DUTCH politicians yesterday scrambled to sort out who will form the country's next government, after polarised voters backed parties on both the Right and the Left with very different ideas on budget cuts and Muslim immigration.

After a neck-in-neck race between the Left-leaning Labour Party and the pro-business VVD Party, the VVD claimed "apparent" victory and plans to take the lead in what may be weeks or even months of negotiations over building a new governing coalition.

"I would like to see a new cabinet put together as soon as possible because of the seriousness of the economic crisis," VVD leader and would-be prime minister Mark Rutte said. "It's a complicated result, but the voter has spoken, and it's up to politicians to put together a good cabinet."

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With 99.5 per cent of votes counted, the VVD led Labour 31 seats to 30 in the 150-seat house.

Voters also gave a major boost to the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which scored its best-ever finish with 24 seats, up from nine. However, the Freedom Party siphoned most of its gains from another party on the right: prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat, dropping from 41 to 21 seats.

Mr Balkenende, who led the government for eight years, said he was leaving politics. He will remain the caretaker premier until a new cabinet is installed.