Christian Democrats win most seats in Dutch elections

Prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s centre-right Christian Democrats won the most seats in Dutch elections, but results today showed a sharply divided nation with no alliance winning a clear mandate to govern.

Dutch support was split between a government coalition that has been tough on immigration and pro-business, and socialists – led by the Labour Party - promoting a softer approach.

It was clear no combination of left or right-wing parties will easily muster a majority in parliament.

“It will take time,” said Balkenende. “All parties will have to analyse how we can rule the country together. How can we give an answer to the questions of the Dutch electorate,” he asked.

The results portend weeks, possibly months, of coalition haggling, with smaller parties in a position to exact a heavy price for their support. Even if talks are successful for one side or the other, the outcome could be an unwieldy and unstable government that would have difficulty completing a four-year term.

The current centre-right coalition is impossible to continue after major losses for Balkenende’s current government partner, the free-market Liberal Party. Bickering and personal attacks between the Christian Democrats and the Labour Party made a “grand coalition” also difficult.

“It’s chaos. It is extremely difficult to distil a government out of these results,” said finance minister Gerrit Zalm of the Liberal Party.

Analysts said the election highlighted the nation’s polarisation, with big gains scored by parties well to the left and right of centre.

That could lead the mainstream centrists to re-examine their rivalries and join together, but that will not be easy. “They need time to adapt to one another,” said Jos de Beus, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam.

Balkenende’s Christian Democrats, cashing in on an economic revival and popular measures to crack down on immigration, won with a wider-than-expected margin over Labour, its closest rival, led by Wouter Bos – capturing at least 41 seats to Labour’s 32, according to near complete results. The Liberals dropped to 22 seats, a loss of six.

“What is clear is that this Cabinet has no mandate to continue,” said Michiel van Hulten, Labour’s campaign chairman. “That is good news. The Netherlands has opted for change.”

The biggest winner Wednesday was the Socialist Party, led by political veteran Jan Marijnissen, which went from the nine places it currently holds to 26 seats.

Right-wing maverick Geert Wilders also had cause to celebrate. After leading a one-man faction in the outgoing parliament, he won nine seats on the strength of his powerful anti-immigrant message.

“We are a normal party that wants lower taxes and tougher sentences, but we are also proud of our culture and against the rise of Islam in Dutch society,” he said. “There are enough Muslims in the Netherlands and enough mosques.”

About 6% of the Dutch population is Muslim.

No major party appeared willing to consider him for a coalition.

The country has been engaged in a tumultuous debate over immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism following two political murders tied to Islam in recent years.

However, immigration and Islam were barely mentioned until the final days of the campaign, when Balkenende’s hard-line immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, said the government intended to outlaw burqas and other face-covering apparel.

Balkenende’s ruling coalition collapsed in June after a minor party, D66, pulled out to protest Verdonk’s botched attempt to revoke the citizenship of Somali-born lawmaker and strident critic of radical Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In a first for Europe, the Party for Animals won two seats. The animal rights’ party wants to curb inhumane practices in industrial farming.

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