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Dutch PM steps down; election winners contemplate coalition

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende announced he was dropping out of front-line politics after almost eight years in power following a heavy defeat for his centrist Christian Democratic party in Wednesday's national election.

Minutes after exit polls showed his party coming fourth in the vote, Balkenende said he would step down as leader of the Christian Democrats and would not be taking up his seat in parliament.

His replacement is expected to be either Labor Party leader Job Cohen, or Mark Rutte, head of the business-friendly People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. The two parties were tied with 31 seats each in the 150-seat parliament, according to exit polls and first official results.

In third place, the far-right Freedom Party more than doubled its score and was expected to take 23 seats. "More security, less crime, less immigration and less Islam is what the Netherlands has voted for," its leader Geert Wilders told cheering supporters.

Wilders hopes Rutte will invite him to join a right-wing coalition government, but most observers were predicting that it's more likely that Cohen and Rutte will overcome their deep differences over the pace of much-needed public spending cuts to put together a broad-based alliance of center-left and center-right parties.

Such a coalition could also include smaller parties who also scored well, like the Green Left which was predicted to win 11 seats and the left-leaning liberal D66 party which was likely to take 10 seats, tripling its score.

Dutch parties routinely take several weeks, or even months, to form governing coalitions that can command a majority in parliament.

Balkenende called the elections a year early after divisions in his government over a parliamentary vote to withdraw most of the country's 1,700 troops from Afghanistan. There's little sign that any incoming coalition will seek to reverse that decision.