Dutch parliamentary elections are still two days away, but already the focus is beginning to turn not to the possible winners, but to the inevitable coalition negotiations that will follow Wednesday's vote.
The Dutch electoral system and large number of parties putting up candidates all but guarantee that no single party will win an overall majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives.
Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday a coalition between his free-market VVD party, the center-left Labor Party and the pro-European Democrats 66 — one of the most-frequently mooted options — is "practically impossible" as the coalition would not have a majority in parliament's upper house, meaning it would be hard to push through legislation.
"Senate elections are not until 2015 — legislation would stagnate," Rutte told National broadcaster NOS.
Politicians are wary of talking about possible coalition partners before elections as they fear it could drive away voters.
But at the same time, they want to start forging the next coalition as soon as possible to stave off the image of a rudderless nation in the aftermath of the election. Rutte remains caretaker prime minister until the new government is formed and his administration will later this month present a government budget for 2013, regardless of the election result.
The leader of the House of Representatives, lawmaker Gerdi Verbeet, reportedly has earmarked Thursday afternoon for initial talks with leaders of the newly elected parties.
In the past, Queen Beatrix has steered the process, but lawmakers earlier this year voted to cut the monarch out of the Cabinet formation.
With the Dutch political landscape increasingly splintered — 21 parties are running in the election and polls suggest 11 will win seats — forming governments can take months, and even painstaking talks to hammer out policies all coalition partners can agree on are no guarantee the Cabinet will survive its four-year term.
The last election was June 9, 2010, and it was not until Oct. 14 of that year that Rutte was sworn in as premier and leader of a minority coalition propped up by anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders.
Just 18 months later, the government collapsed when Wilders refused to support far-reaching austerity measures aimed at bringing the Dutch budget deficit back in line with European Union-mandated limits. Wednesday's election will be the fifth in the Netherlands in just over a decade.
Rutte's VVD is running neck-and-neck with Labor in polls. The party with the most seats traditionally provides the new prime minister and takes the lead in forming the next government.
Both parties are still criticizing one another's policies on the campaign trail, but their opponents suspect they may already be positioning themselves to join forces in the next government.
Christian Democrats leader Sybrand Buma, said over the weekend he suspects Labor and the VVD have already "penciled in" a post-election appointment to discuss a new Cabinet.
Buma hopes his party, a fading power in Dutch politics, could be the glue to bind together Labor and VVD.
"We need a stable, centrist Cabinet," to help the Netherlands out of the credit crisis, Buma said. "You can't solve this crisis on the left or the right. You can solve it by working together."
Politicians can take a long time to hammer out a new government after elections if they have to rely on coalitions.
The Dutch have nothing on their neighbors in Belgium, where bitter divisions between French- and Dutch-speaking lawmakers led to a world-record 541-day formation process after the last election before Elio Di Rupo was chosen as the country's leader late last year.