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Parties look for coalition after tight outcome in St. Maarten's 1st parliament vote

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten (AP) — Tiny St. Maarten has elected its first independent parliament, but results on Saturday leave unclear who will govern when the former Dutch colony becomes a semiautonomous country on Oct. 10.

The National Alliance that had led the outgoing island council won seven of the 15 seats in the new parliament, one more than the recently formed United People's Party. The Democratic Party took two seats — giving it a potential deciding role if the top two parties fail to agree on a coalition on their own.

"We need to move swiftly to form a coalition," said National Alliance leader William Marlin. "No political games. The electorate's decision should be respected."

Theo Hayliger, who established the United People's Party two months ago, said he is willing to work with any party to establish a government.

There are no major ideological differences between the parties, though the UP favors adopting the U.S. dollar while the National Alliance wants to continue using a regional Dutch-linked currency.

The new country is gaining domestic political independence with the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, although the Dutch monarch remains head of state and will oversee foreign affairs and defense. The country's people will remain Dutch nationals, with Dutch passports.

Curacao also will become semi-independent. and will share some government functions, such as a central bank and supreme court, with St. Maarten. The small islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire will become Dutch municipalities.

St. Maarten has about 40,000 citizens on its 13 square mile (34 square kilometer) territory, the southern third of an island shared with French-ruled St. Martin. It is the smallest land mass in the world to be divided between two sovereign nations.

Nearly 70 percent of the 19,600 voters turned out for Friday's elections.

Many key details of the new governments for St. Maarten and Curacao remain to be decided, including what sort of currency they will use and how their tax systems will be structured.

The island was sighted and named by Colombus in 1493, though the explorer never landed there. The Dutch and French agreed to divide control of the island in 1648, but often clashed over where the border should be until a final pact in 1817.