Weeks of tough negotiations are in prospect for Dutch politicians after the general election results show that no party came near to getting a majority in parliament.
The center-right Liberal Party of Marke Rutte emerged for the first time as the largest single party, with 31 seats in the 150-seat legislature, followed by the Labor Party, with 30 seats.
The Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which opposes what it calls the "Islamization" of the Netherlands, improved its position significantly, becoming the third-largest party in the parliament, ahead of the Christian Democrats of outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
Balkenende acknowledged the scale of his defeat by resigning as party head.
"The results of this election do matter, and it means that I, as a party leader, I have to take my responsibility," he said. "And as a party chairman, I told my party that I was quitting the leadership immediately, and I also informed them that l shall not be installed as a member of the new parliament. This is part of me taking my political responsibilities.''
Former government counsellor Jan Vis says that with the fall of Balkenende the "political environment has changed dramatically." He says the political center has been halved, making it much more difficult to build a viable government.
Wilders, by contrast, is jubilant, saying the Dutch have chosen more security, less crime, less immigration, and less Islam.
His Freedom Party won't be easy to overlook in alliance building, and Rutte of the Liberals has already said he's willing to consider any party for a coalition partner. However, Labor Party leader Job Cohen objects to teaming up with Wilder's rightists.
"I don't think we are going to work together with Geert Wilders and this has been my position," Cohen says. "It did not change.''
Philip van Praag, a professor of political science at Amsterdam University, is quoted in the Dutch daily "AD" as saying that one possibility is a coalition of both right and left, leaving aside the Freedom Party. Such a grouping would consist of Liberals, Labor, and the small parties Democrats-66 and the Greens.
But that would likely have the effect of watering down the Liberals' stern program of economic austerity, which was the major plank of its program going into the election. Rutte wants to slash spending by 39 billion euros, but Labor's program is much milder, with fewer cuts.
The Dutch electorate seems to be taking the political confusion in its stride, if remarks by a passerby called Catherine, questioned in a street survey by Reuters, are anything to go by.
''It always takes a long time. We are used to that," she says. "Sometimes it takes months. Hopefully it will only take a few weeks. People are under a lot of pressure to get things done.''
compiled from agency reports