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Ruling Dutch party claims victory in elections

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte claimed victory early Thursday for his conservative VVD party in national elections widely seen as a referendum on the Netherlands' commitment to Europe.

With 92 percent of municipalities reporting, the VVD was set to take 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, two more than its largest rival, the center-left Labor party. Rutte said Labor leader Diederik Samsom had called him to concede.

"Tonight let's enjoy it, and tomorrow we have get to work to make sure a stable Cabinet is formed as soon as possible," Rutte told cheering supporters at a beachside hotel in The Hague. "Then I'm going to get to work with you to help the Netherlands emerge from this crisis," he said, referring to Europe's debt crisis, which has left the Dutch economy in the doldrums.

The result sets the stage for the VVD and Labor — both pro-Europe parties — to forge a two-party ruling coalition with Rutte returning for a second term as prime minister.

Formal coalition talks can't start until official results are verified on Monday and the new parliament is seated, next week at the earliest. Rutte said he wouldn't comment on possible coalitions for the time being.

Both top parties booked gains far greater than polls before Wednesday's election had predicted, as voters strayed from smaller parties to support the two front runners.

Labor leader Samsom, who shot to prominence in the past month due to strong performances in televised debates, was jubilant.

He told supporters in Amsterdam that Labor was willing to help form a government "as long as the result from tonight is translated into the plans of a new Cabinet."

But Rutte also called the vote an endorsement of his previous government's right-wing policies and austerity platform, while Samsom ran on a platform of change.

"This is a strong boost for the agenda that we have laid out for the Netherlands, to go on with our policy in this splendid country," Rutte said.

The election was cast as a virtual referendum on Europe amid the continent's crippling debt crisis, but the result was a stark rejection of the most radical critic of the EU, anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party was forecast to lose 8 seats, dropping to 16.

Wilders' calls to ditch the euro may have been too radical for voters, or he may have lost support for walking out of talks with Rutte in April to hammer out an austerity package to rein in the Dutch budget deficit.

"The voter has spoken," an emotional Wilders told supporters in a Hague cafe. The Socialist Party, which briefly led in polls on its anti-austerity platform, wound up unchanged at 15 seats.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt welcomed the result.

"Looks as if populist anti-Europeans are losing big time in Dutch election. Distinctly good news," Bildt tweeted.

The VVD's campaign manager, lawmaker Stef Blok, did not want to speculate about coalition talks, but said the result "shows the VVD has an unbelievable amount of support."

Ronald Plasterk of Labor said voters responded to his party's more compassionate social policies.

"It's an honest platform," he said. "On the one hand we're for a strong euro, for solid government finances, but also for a real social policy and welfare net."

The result was a victory for pro-European forces in the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU whose export-driven economy has benefited from the bloc's open market.

Whatever form the new government takes, it is not likely to derail the current Franco-German compromise approach to solving Europe's sovereign debt crisis.

Both the VVD and Labor endorse cost-cutting for most governments to keep them within European budget deficit rules. But they also support exceptions or even bailouts for fiscally stressed countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy — as long as they adhere to externally mandated cost-cutting targets and labor market reforms.

While critical of a strict austerity-only solution to the debt crisis, the parties can work together. Labor backed Rutte at crucial moments in the past year to approve bailout funds and endorse European-level solutions to prevent the debt crisis from spinning out of control.

Rutte is closer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in his outlook, and Samsom closer to French President Francois Hollande, but in a coalition those differences would likely balance out.

By not flocking to Wilders or the euro-skeptical Socialist Party, Dutch voters signaled at least an acceptance of the importance of a healthy Europe: in national polls, voters said that no election issue was nearly as important as the state of the Dutch economy and the effect Europe's sovereign debt crisis is having on it.

For the Dutch, the elections are something of a return to normalcy after a decade of upheaval.

For the first time since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical, the election focused on economic policies such as mortgage deductions and the retirement age, rather than Muslim integration and immigrant crime.

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Associated Press reporters Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Raf Casert in The Hague contributed to this story.