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First exit polls from the Dutch general election show the Labor Party and the right-of-center People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) neck and neck in the race to provide The Netherlands' next prime minister.
Minutes after the vote closed, polls showed former Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen of Labor tied with the free-market VVD led by Mark Rutte. Both were seen winning 31 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
The polls predicted the far-right Freedom Party of controversial anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders scoring better than expected in third place with 23 seats, while the Christian Democratic Appeal of outgoing Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende seemed headed to a heavy defeat with just 21 seats.
Dutch voters can now expect weeks, maybe months, of negotiations as the parties seek to bind together a coalition that can muster the 76 seats needed for a majority in parliament. A smattering of smaller parties including greens, christian conservatives and left-leaning liberals were seen winning a total of 44 seats.
Whichever combination eventually forms the government, the Dutch are bracing for deep cuts in public spending to reduce a budget deficit which at over 6 percent is the worst for 15 years, although still much better than many European nations.
Although the economy was the major factor in the campaign, the VVD and the Freedom Party both campaigned for a tough line on immigration. Cohen however highlighted his reputation for promoting tolerance by reaching out to Amsterdam's large North African immigrant population during his time as mayor of the country's largest city.