Dutch vote for change — to the right

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands — Dutch electors voted overwhelmingly for change Wednesday.

They booted out Jan-Peter Balkenende, their prime minister of nine years, handing victory to a right-of-center, pro-business party for the first time in the country's history and gave a huge boost to an anti-Islam firebrand who wants to close mosques and ban the Koran.

"This is a glorious day for the whole Netherlands ... . More security, less crime, less immigration and less Islam is what the Netherlands has voted for," proclaimed Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party, who is facing prosecution under hate-speech laws.

However, the right's success was matched by a solid vote for the Labor Party led by Job Cohen, the Jewish former mayor of Amsterdam who built his reputation on reaching out to the city's large Muslim community. Two other left-wing parties, the Greens and the liberal D-66 party also did well.

Wilders' party more than doubled its score, rising to become the third party in parliament with 24 of the 150 seats. With 10 parties now engaging in what are expected to be lengthy coalition talks, Wilders may yet become a minister in the Dutch government.

Leading the coalition talks is Mark Rutte, leader of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, which became the biggest party in the Netherlands for the first time since it was founded after World War II. However, its victory was the narrowest in Dutch history.

The VVD won 31 seats compared to 30 for the Labor Party in second place. The most likely scenario is that those two parties will form a broad governing coalition that excludes Wilders, but Labor and the VVD have deep differences over the economy and immigration, which might open the way for the Freedom Party.

"We don't rule out any coalition," Rutte said when asked if he'd bring Wilders into government.

Rutte, a youthful former Unilever executive, is most likely to become prime minister. His party traditionally presents itself as economically conservative but socially liberal. It is calling for drastic cuts in public spending in order to control a budget deficit of 6.6 percent — low by the standards of many European countries, but the Netherlands' highest in 15 years.

The VVD has also moved toward a tougher line on immigration, taking on some of the Freedom Party's ideas on limiting the entry of newcomers into the country.

However, the voters' swing to the right was matched by gains by left-of-center parties. Support for the Labor Party has rebounded under Cohen with his message of inter-community tolerance. The left-leaning D-66 party tripled its vote to win 10 seats and the Green Left increased its representation to from seven to 11.

The big loser was Balkenende's centrist Christian Democratic Appeal, which saw its support collapse. "CDA Flattened. Dramatic end to the Balkenende era," said the headline in the daily De Telegraaf newspaper.

The party was left in fourth place with just 21 seats down from the 41 it won in the last election in 2006. Balkenende immediately announced he was stepping out of frontline politics, resigning as party leader and refusing to take his seat in parliament. He will stay on as caretaker premier until a new government is formed.

Under Balkenende, the Netherlands had been strong ally of the United States, supporting the invasion of Iraq and sending 1,700 troops to serve with NATO in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. A government split over a parliamentary vote to pull those troops out this year forced Balkenende to call the elections a year ahead of schedule. It's unlikely any new government will reverse that decision to bring most of the Dutch troops home.

Despite the success of the free-market VVD, Dutch business leaders expressed that the narrowness of the victory will mean that any new government will not be strong enough to impose the tough economic measures that the country needs. Rutte has said he wants savings of 20 billion euros over five years, Cohen says the cuts can be limited to 11 billion euros.

"Considering the economic measures that are needed, this is an awful result," Bernard Wientjes, head of the Netherlands employers association, told Dutch radio. He called on the two biggest parties to put differences behind them and work for a strong economic program. Whatever the shape of the eventual government, the Dutch are braced for a period of austerity. A rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 looks to be inevitable.

Among the estimated 850,000 Dutch Muslims there is mounting disquiet about Wilder's success.

"It bothers me that people believe the lies he tells about us," said a 30-year-old housewife doing her shopping while wearing traditional North African dress in the center of The Hague.

"I was born and raised here," added the woman of Moroccan origin, who declined to give her name, "but I know that some of my neighbors must vote for Wilders, they are two-faced."