- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, Jan. 23 (UPI) — The Netherlands on Wednesday was set for a further period of political instability as preliminary results from the country's second election in less than a year produced no clear winner.

Although the ruling Christian Democrats emerged as the biggest party with almost 44 out of 150 seats, they did not receive enough support to form a stable coalition with their Liberal partners.

This leaves three options for Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende's center-right party.

Commentators say the most likely outcome is that the Christian Democrats will enter into a 'grand coalition' with the Labor Party, which almost doubled their number of seats in a spectacular reversal of last year's disastrous election result.

Another possibility is for Balkenende to team up with his Liberal allies plus one of two fringe groupings. However, this would be unlikely to give the Netherlands the political stability it needs after one of the most dramatic years in its post-war history.

Even if Balkenende is likely to remain prime minister, the poll's undisputed victor was the Labor Party's telegenic new leader Wouter Bos, who told cheering supporters in Amsterdam: "It is a fantastic evening and a fantastic result."

The 39-year-old former Shell manager boosted the leftist party's presence in Parliament from 23 to 42 seats at the end of a closely fought campaign dominated by the twin issues of security and immigration.

Former Premier Wim Kok, whose left-leaning coalition ruled the Netherlands for eight years until it was booted out of power last May, described the result as an "earthquake" and warned: "It would be a denial of the enormous movement we have seen tonight if the Labor Party is not included in talks on forming the next government."

The biggest loser in a poll that saw voter turnout top 80 percent was the party of slain populist politician Pim Fortuyn, which saw its number of parliamentary seats slashed from 26 to eight.

The anti-immigration party was widely blamed for triggering the collapse of the right-wing government in October after less than 100 days in office. It also saw many of its hard-line policies on immigration stolen by mainstream political forces during the three-week campaign.

When the final results are confirmed Monday, Queen Beatrix is expected to call on Balkenende's party to begin talks aimed at forming a government — a process that can often take months in this famously consensual country.

Addressing the party faithful in The Hague, the caretaker prime minister admitted: "The Dutch face big questions. It is not an easy task to govern now."


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