Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and his Christian Democrats have suffered a crushing defeat in Wednesday's parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. The party only managed to finish fourth, behind even the Freedom Party of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders.
Results were tight on election night, but by Thursday morning it appeared that the liberal-conservative VVD managed to come out ahead of the center-left Labor Party (PvdA). With 96.5 percent of the votes counted, Mark Rutte's VVD was ahead on Thursday morning with 31 of the 150 seats in the future parliament, while the PvdA had 30 seats.
Rutte called the VVD's result "a splendid victory." "It appears as if for the first time in our history the VVD has become the largest party in the Netherlands," he told supporters in the town of Scheveningen.
Weeks of Haggling
Rutte is now set to become the new prime minister. A 43-year-old former business manager, he would be the first liberal head of government in the Netherlands since World War I.
The result is likely to lead to weeks or even months of haggling as the parties try to form a stable coalition. Final results will not be declared until June 15, after votes from Dutch residents abroad have been tallied.
The real winner of the elections seems, however, to have been Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party (PVV) won 24 seats, making it the third-strongest political force in the Netherlands. It managed to beat Balkenende's ruling Christian Democrats, which came in fourth place with 21 seats.
During his election campaign, Wilders called for a stop to immigration from Muslim countries and the reduction of social benefits for new immigrants. On election night, he reiterated his call for a role in the next government, saying it would be "not democratic" if the other parties, in their search for a coalition, were to ignore the fact that around 1.5 million people had voted for his PVV. "We want to govern," he said. Wilders has said he wants to form a coalition with the VVD and the Christian Democrats. The three right-wing parties could form a coalition with 76 seats, giving them a narrow majority in the 150-seat parliament.
PvdA leader Job Cohen and VVD head Mark Rutte both congratulated Wilders. "We must respect the growth of the PVV," Cohen said. In the run-up to the election, Rutte said that he would not rule out any party as a possible coalition partner.
Euro Worries Helped VVD
The big losers of the elections are the incumbent Christian Democrats, whose total of 21 seats is a poor showing compared to 2006, when they won 41 seats. Balkenende described the result as "very disappointing." On Wednesday evening, he resigned from his post of party chairman, saying he was taking "political responsibility" for the defeat. He also resigned from his parliamentary seat, but will remain in office as prime minister until a new government has been formed.
Other parties that did well include the Green-Left party, which increased their seat tally from seven in 2006 to 10, and the left-liberal party Democrats-66 who went up from three to 11 seats. The Socialist Party, which had won 25 seats in 2006, saw their seats drop to 14.
The Dutch parliamentary elections were the first to be held in a euro-zone member since the onset of the euro crisis. The situation appears to have favored the liberal VVD, who are planning an ambitious cost-cutting program in the public sector, including tough budget cuts and slashing welfare payments for immigrants. The party has set itself the target of reducing the Netherlands' budget deficit, which, at 5.3 percent of GDP, is currently well over the euro-zone limit, to zero.
Balkenende's center-left coalition government collapsed in February after the Labor Party withdrew from the coalition over a dispute about the Dutch mission in Afghanistan, forcing new elections.