The centre-right Liberal party, who campaigned for sharp austerity cuts in public spending have a one seat advantage over the Labour Party, topping the poll for the first time in the party's history. The initial exit polls showed the two parties neck and neck, with the populist anti-Islam right gaining most strongly in third, and the governing Christian Democrats collapsing to fourth place.
As the Dutch press react to the country's complex election outcome, one newspaper, De Pers, wrote "a completely splintered political landscape: this is what the Dutch have chosen in the midst of a deep economic crisis".
Labour leader Job Cohen, the popular former Mayor of Amsterdam, fought a campaign focused on a staunch defence of Dutch tolerance in "a country of minorities" and for more gradual public spending cuts. The election campaign had been dominated by deficit reduction, with the cultural issues of immigration and Islam largely overshadowed, having dominated Dutch politics earlier in the year.
The big gainer was Gert Wilders' populist right-wing anti-Islam party, which won 24 seats (gaining 15) to become the third largest party in the Dutch Parliament. Wilders campaigning on the slogan ""Stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands". He had even last Autumn proposed what he called a "head rag tax" of 1000 euros per year to wear a Muslim headscarf, though later backed away after opposition to and mockery of the proposal.
"“More safety, less crime, less immigration and less Islam is what the Netherlands has chosen” Wilders said reacting to the result. “We would love to govern. I don’t think other parties can ignore us.”
There were heavy losses for the Christian Democrats, falling from 41 seats to just 21 seats and fourth place in the polls. Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister for eight years, immediately resigned as party leader and from Parliament, taking responsibility for the result.
The result demonstrates the volatility of Dutch politics. When the when the government fell in February, the Christian Democrats had still held a narrow poll lead, with Wilders challenging for the lead, and the Liberals and Labour pushed into third and fourth.
Labour party strategists had argued for much of the last decade that the party needed to shift the focus of public debate from cultural to economic issues. However, that "reframing" proposition was founded on an assumption that the party would then win the economic argument. In this campaign, the liberal right made the running by framing the "crisis" as primarily caused by too much public spending.
Labour regained support from the left-wing Socialist Party, though the Green-Left gained seats. The result also demonstrated the relevance of tactical voting in a PR system, as Labour appealed for "strategic votes" from its left, given the importance of finishing first or second, to have a chance of government and to keep the populist right out.
Who will govern?
Coalition negotiations are unlikely to be concluded rapidly, and there are doubts about how stable any coalition can be.
VVD leader Mark Rutte had left open his options of working with any party, and congratulated Wilders first in his own victory speech. The three parties of the right look likely have 76 seats in the 150 seat Parliament: The Economist suggests that "more likely partners are on the right – the defeated Christian Democrats and the triumphant Mr Wilders", but this is not perhaps the most likely outcome.
The heavy Christian Democrat defeat means that senior figures are saying that the party should accept the verdict and go into opposition. Another barrier to a coalition of the right with Wilders is that the populist party lacks any seats in the upper house, which is determined by provincial elections in which the PVV party did not participate. So a broader coalition would be needed to pass legislation. Several parties - including the right-wing Christian Union, as well as the centre and left parties - had said they could not govern with Wilders.
The Christian Democrats are also unlikely to want to be junior partners in a coalition with the Liberals and Labour.
So a the "Purple" Coalition of Liberal-Labour and the D66 social Liberals, also now involving the Left-Greens (making this "Purple Plus") is perhaps the more likely outcome. That would involve significant compromises on all sides over defict reduction plans, and any swift outcome to coalition talks seems unlikely.
Finally, what does this mean for World Cup neutrals? The election outcome certainly backs up this blog's description of World Cup Group E as "the group of political uncertainty". Despite the strong showing of the populist right, the solid performance of Dutch Labour and the more likely coalition outcome means that the Next Left blog now advocates perhaps at least two cheers for Holland, alongside Japan, when the World Cup begins!
The results (with 97% of the vote counted):
VVD 31 (22) 20.06% Freedom and Democracy (economic liberal centre-right)
PvdA 30 (33) 20% Labour (social democrat centre-left)
PVV 24 (9) 16% Party for Freedom (anti-Islam populist right)
CDA 21 (41) 14% Christian Democrat (centre-right)
SP 15 (25) 10% Socialist Party (left)
GroenLinks 10 (7) 6.6% Greens (environmentalist left)
D66 10 (3) 6.6% (liberal left)
ChristenUnie 5 (6) 3.3% Christian Union (Protestant conservative Eurosceptics)
SGP 2 (2) 1.3% Reform (traditionalist conservative Eurosceptic)
PvdD 2 (2) 1.3% Party for the animals (animal rights/green)