Netherlands: right-wing on top

But the complete preliminary results of Wednesday’s vote show a widely scattered parliament with neither a left-wing or a right-wing parties getting a clear majority.

Mr Balkenende claimed victory after partial results showed his party had become the biggest group in parliament.

“We are the biggest party again … the effort of four years of struggle has been rewarded and that makes me proud,” he told his supporters.

His speech was often interrupted by cheers of “four more years”.

Although he celebrated his win, he also acknowledged that the coalition talks would be very difficult.

The complete preliminary results showed the Christian Democrats holding 41 seats in the 150 seat parliament.

This means Mr Balkenende will probably be asked to form another coalition government.

Netherlands country profile

Their main rival, leader Wouter Bos’ Labour Party, had 32 seats.

The Dutch electoral council put voter turnout at 80.1 percent.

“It is chaos,” outgoing Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm said of the election outcome, adding that “the anarchists” had won the elections.

A possible outcome could be a sort of “grand coalition” of the Christian Democrats and Labour, not unusual in Dutch politics since 1945.

However a third party would be needed to reach a majority.

The small Christian Union party, which will hold six seats, already evoked the possibility of joining a Christian Democrat/Labour coalition.

Coalition talks are expected to be protracted, taking weeks if not months.

Mr Balkenende, 50, with a safe Calvinist middle-class image and a look that has earned him the nickname Harry Potter, after the fictional child wizard, was initially unpopular because of his austerity measures, but the reforms he pushed through are now credited with bringing about an economic turnaround.

The far-left Socialist Party made major inroads winning 26 seats, up from nine seats currently, to become the third biggest party in the parliament.

The Socialist Party campaigned against social welfare reform and attracted a significant protest vote not only against the centre-right government’s socio-economic reforms, but also from traditional Labour supporters who felt their party has sailed too close to the Christian Democrats in anticipation of a possible coalition.

“The Netherlands has shown that it wants a more humane and more social government,” triumphant party leader Jan Marijnissen said.

The Christian Democrats current coalition partner, the right-wing liberal VVD known for its hardline Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, garnered only 22 places, a loss of six.

Social welfare and economic issues key

While the Netherlands has made headlines around the world for its tough stance on immigration and integration, the election campaign was mainly fought over social welfare and economic issues.

Even the government’s proposed “burqa ban” and torture allegations against Dutch troops in Iraq that made headlines last week appeared to have had little impact.

The perceived lack of integration by Muslims who account for 5.8 percent of the population has been much debated here since the 2002 rise of populist leader Pim Fortuyn – murdered by an animal rights activist who said he wanted to protect weaker members of society such as immigrants and Muslims — and the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical in 2004.

However, Dutch voters seem to have tired of the issue and the major parties appear to have reached a consensus on hardline policies to curb immigration and promote integration, making it almost a non-issue in the campaign.

Of the right-wing populist parties, the Freedom Party of outspoken Islam critic Geert Wilders, a former VVD MP, came out of nowhere to win nine seats.

In a European first the one-issue Party for Animals also got into the parliament with two seats on an animal-rights platform.