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Dutch elections underway

The weather is dreary, but the elections in The Netherlands are shaping up to be the most exciting in years as leaders on the right and left go head to head to replace the centrist prime minister, while a flamboyant anti-Islamic firebrand seeks to break into government for the first time.

Late polls ahead of the June 9 vote indicated Labor Party leader Job Cohen making up ground on the frontrunner Mark Rutte, leader of the right-of-center People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Both were expected to get about 30 of the 150 seats in parliament, with the VVD slightly ahead.

First results are due shortly after polls close at 9:00 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) but it will likely be much later before anyone knows the shape of the new government.

Coalition talks usually drag on for months in The Netherlands. This time the expected close vote and the emergence of the Freedom Party led by the Islamophobe Geert Wilders will likely make negotiations especially complicated.

If the VVD gets most seats, Rutte will be on course to become the first VVD prime minister since the party was founded in 1948.

The Christian Democratic Appeal party of outgoing Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende is expected to receive a drubbing but is the most likely junior partner in a Rutte-led coalition government. However they will probably need support from one of the other big parties to form a majority, meaning Wilders could creep into government.

The economy is the big theme on voters' minds. The pro-business VVD is trusted by many to help steer the country through Europe's economic crisis, but many are worried that Rutte's proposal to slash public spending by 20 billion euros over the next five years is too drastic.

The other parties recognize that cuts are needed to rein in the highest deficit in 15 years, but Cohen is promising a less drastic approach.

Wilders' has seen his lead in polls slip away as voter concern has focused on the economy rather than immigration. Nevertheless, his Freedom Party is forecast to double its score and win about 18 seats.

Despite persistent rain, voter turnout looked to be only slightly down on previous elections, but in streets in The Hague, their was little sign of political drama with only a few bedraggled party workers out campaigning.

Streets and cafes decorated in the national colors indicated mounting excitement over the national team's performance at the World Cup, which starts Friday, rather than enthusiasm for the expected change in government.

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/benelux/100609/dutch-elections-underway