Balkenende clings to power as Dutch head for uneasy coalition

Jan Peter Balkenende, the centre-right Prime Minister of the Netherlands, is set to cling to power after indecisive election results which are likely to produce an uneasy left-right coalition.

Mr Balkenende's Christian Democrats finished ahead of the centre-left Labour Party with whom they are likely to end up in government ­ though even the two biggest parties are not expected to have a clear majority between them.

The left-wing and Eurosceptic Socialist Party emerged as one of the other big winners, boosting their current nine seats to 25. Meanwhile, Geert Wilders was the only one of a clutch of populist anti-immigration campaigners to perform well. TV predictions suggested the Christian Democrats would win 40 seats while the Labour Party took 33.

With no obvious combination of parties holding the 76 seats to secure a majority, the Netherlands faces a protracted period of political horsetrading. Coalition negotiations in the country have been known to last for months

Despite his notorious lack of charisma Mr Balkenende has achieved a remarkable comeback after being deeply unpopular. His centre-right coalition, which included the Liberal VVD party, has taken a tough line on immigration, personified by the minister responsible, Rita Verdonk. Last week she announced plans to ban the burqa if re-elected. Up to that point, the twin issues of immigration and integration had featured little in the election campaign. But both subjects are highly sensitive in the Netherlands following the murder in 2004 of Theo Van Gogh, the controversial film-maker whose work criticised Islam.

In a last-ditch appeal to voters, 50-year-old Mr Balkenende, highlighted the economic recovery in the Netherlands arguing: "We were behind in Europe and now we are really one of the front-runners. I am very proud of the results and I really hope that people will recognise this and that we can go on with these successful type of policies."

The Labour leader, 43-year-old Wouter Bos, was turned away from a polling station after failing to present the correct voter card, and had to return later to vote.

The opposition leader hoped for a late surge of support from voters of immigrant origin, tired of the hardline policies championed by the centre-right coalition. But large numbers of those surveyed have declared themselves undecided.

Mr Bos, a fierce critic of the government's social policy, has promised to grant citizenship to thousands of people whose asylum applications have been rejected and who have been living illegally in the Netherlands.

The election, originally scheduled for May 2007, was called after the centre-right coalition collapsed in June in a row over the government's handling of the disputed citizenship of the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam was threatened with the loss of her Dutch passport after she admitted lying on her asylum application.

The issue of integration of minorities came into sharp focus in the Netherlands in 2002 after the murder of the maverick anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn. In the wake of his death in 2002, his party won 26 seats and took part in the coalition, though that government soon collapsed amid vicious infighting.

The results

Christian Democrats (CDA) 41 seats (-3)

Labour Party 32 (-10)

Socialists 26 (+17)

People's Party for Freedom of Democracy (VVD) 22 (-6)

Christian Union 6 (+3)

Others 23 (-1)

76 seats needed for a majority

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