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Vote represents blow to The Netherlands' contributions in Afghanistan.
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."