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Coalition options look tough in the Netherlands after voters send a mixed message in parliamentary elections, giving the pro-business Liberals a lead of just one seat and bumping an anti-immigrant party to third place.
Rutte may have won the most seats, but it remains unclear who will govern
Dutch Queen Beatrix brought together top parliamentary and political advisors on Thursday to begin considering possible government coalitions. The process of forming a new government could take months after elections in the Netherlands gave the pro-business Liberals 31 out of 150 seats in parliament, ahead of the center-right Labor party by just one seat.
"I would be very surprised if we have a new government before September/October," University of Twente political analyst Henk van der Kolk told the AFP news agency.
But Liberal leader Mark Rutte has said he wants to form a new government by the end of the month. The new parliament is set to be constituted on June 17.
Controversial Wilders says he's ready to govern
The far-right, anti-immigrant Party of Freedom, led by anti-Islam activist Geert Wilders, made the most gains in the election, leapfrogging incumbent Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats into third place with 24 seats - an increase of 15 seats. The Christian Democrats lost 19 seats, ending up with just 22. Balkenende has resigned but will continue to hold his post until a new government is formed.
Wilders has called Islam an 'evil religion'
A coalition of the conservative Liberals, the Labor party, the centrist D66 and the Greens is possible, but politically difficult, putting the Liberals in a minority position in a leftist coalition. And while a coalition with Wilders, who is to be tried in October for inciting racial hatred against Muslims, might seem unsavory, the Liberals have not ruled it out.
And Wilders says his party is ready to be part of the next government. "We want to govern!" he said on election night.
"One and a half million Dutch have voted for us. They have voted for more security, less crime, and less Islam," he said. "It would be highly undemocratic to ignore this vote."
Among the smaller parties, the Green Left increased its share from seven to 10 seats, and the left-liberal Democrats 66 party went from three seats to 11. The Socialist Party dropped from 25 seats to 14.
A majority of 76 seats is requited to form a government.
Favorites for prime minister are Mark Rutte, far left, and Job Cohen, second from right
The leanings of the potential prime ministers
That could give Dutch voters a probable choice between "bridge builder" Job Cohen of the Labor party and small government supporter Mark Rutte of the Liberals. When asked who they would prefer as prime minister, 23 percent of the respondents to a recent poll chose Cohen, giving him a narrow lead over Rutte, who was preferred by 21 percent.
Cohen, who served as Amsterdam's mayor from 2001 until March of this year, has built a reputation as a sober politician who believes in inclusivity - in society at large as well as in politics.
"I stand for cooperation in a country in which everybody counts," Cohen says in an interview on his website.
The 62-year-old law professor was the first in the world to perform a civil gay marriage in 2001. His appeal for "cool heads" in the aftermath of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist also won him accolades. Cohen was deputy justice minister from 1998 to 2001 and also served as a deputy minister of education and science in 1993 and 1994.
Cohen, whose parents survived the Holocaust in hiding, would be the Netherlands' first Jewish prime minister. He is married and has a son and daughter.
Rutte, a former human resources manager, would be the first Liberal prime minister in almost 100 years. The 43-year-old would also be the first bachelor and the second-youngest prime minister in Dutch history.
Rutte has said he wants to reduce government spending by 20 billion euros ($26.8 billion) within the next five years, and make another 10 billion euros in cuts by 2019.
Rutte was junior minister of Social Affairs and Education until 2006. Although his party is known for favoring more stringent controls on immigrants and immigration, Rutte has tried to set himself apart from Wilders, saying he "will not reject entire groups based on their religion."
A kingmaker on the far right
But cooperation with Wilders could be essential to coalition building.
During a pre-election debate on Tuesday, Rutte said he didn't want to rule out cooperation with any party. And when the Party for Freedom's initial results were announced, Rutte called them impressive.
Cohen has said he would not form a coalition with the party of Wilders, who is regarded as his political opposite. But a coalition composed exclusively of left-leaning parties is unlikely, as they don't appear to have enough seats.
Wilders himself has said he favors a coalition with the Liberals and Christian Democrats, and that a government without his party's participation would be "not democratic."
Author: Holly Fox (/AFP/AP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson