AMSTERDAM – AMSTERDAM (AP) — The pro-business VVD party claimed victory in Dutch elections early Thursday, 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, who has led the government for eight years, 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 Thursday 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. He is under hate speech prosecution for comparing Islam to Naziism and calling for a ban on the Quran.
Wilders booked major gains in municipal elections earlier this year with ideas such a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women. But his popularity faded slightly ahead of the elections as he was unable to deliver that promise and attention shifted to the European financial crisis. The Netherlands deficit is predicted to run at 6.3 percent of GDP this year.
Wilders said he was willing to accept compromises in order to enter a Cabinet.
Other parties may try "to shove us aside, but we must be taken seriously," Wilders said, noting that his party had booked the largest gains.
Altogether, 10 parties will be represented in parliament, continuing a trend toward greater fragmentation.
Pre-election polls had shown the VVD holding a commanding lead, with Labor a distant second.
Though the VVD didn't do quite as well as expected, it added nine seats and Rutte proclaimed it "a splendid victory."
The VVD has pledged to slash the deficit by cutting government spending and welfare programs. Labor has criticized the program as harmful to the poor.
Labor wants to preserve government social programs, raise taxes on the wealthy and make it easier for immigrants to integrate rather than punishing those that fail.
"This country spends too much. For a lot of people it's better to collect social security than to work," said Willem Bosma, 32, a civil servant and VVD supporter casting his vote in Amsterdam's main train station.
Although not as outspoken against immigration as Wilders, Rutte has also argued that immigrants who cannot contribute to the Dutch economy should not be allowed to come, and he would ban them from receiving welfare for 10 years after arrival.