Prime Minister Mark Rutte has claimed victory for his conservative VVD party in elections widely seen as a referendum on the Netherlands’ commitment to Europe.
With results from 92 per cent of municipalities reported, the VVD was set to take 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, two more than its largest rival, the centre-left Labour party. Mr Rutte said Labour leader Diederik Samsom had called him to concede.
“Tonight let’s enjoy it, and tomorrow we have get to work to make sure a stable cabinet is formed as soon as possible,” Mr Rutte told cheering supporters at a beachside hotel in The Hague.
“Then I’m going to get to work with you to help the Netherlands emerge from this crisis,” he said, referring to Europe’s debt crisis, which has left the Dutch economy in the doldrums.
The result sets the stage for the VVD and Labour - both pro-Europe parties - to forge a two-party ruling coalition with Mr Rutte returning for a second term as prime minister.
Formal coalition talks can’t start until official results are verified on Monday and the new parliament is seated, next week at the earliest.
Mr Rutte said he would not comment on possible coalitions for the time being.
Both top parties booked gains as voters strayed from smaller parties to support them.
Mr Samsom, who shot to prominence in the past month due to strong performances in televised debates, was jubilant.
He told supporters in Amsterdam that Labour was willing to help form a government “as long as the result from tonight is translated into the plans of a new Cabinet”.
But Mr Rutte also called the vote an endorsement of his previous government’s right-wing policies and austerity platform.
“This is a strong boost for the agenda that we have laid out for the Netherlands, to go on with our policy in this splendid country,” Mr Rutte said.
The election was cast as a virtual referendum on Europe amid the continent’s crippling debt crisis, but the result was a stark rejection of the most radical critic of the EU, anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party was forecast to lose eight seats, dropping to 16.
Mr Wilders’ calls to ditch the euro may have been too radical for voters, or he may have lost support for walking out of talks with Mr Rutte in April to hammer out an austerity package to rein in the Dutch budget deficit.
“The voter has spoken,” an emotional Mr Wilders told supporters.
The Socialist Party, which briefly led in polls on its anti-austerity platform, wound up unchanged at 15 seats.
By not flocking to Mr Wilders or the euro-sceptical Socialist Party, Dutch voters signalled at least an acceptance of the importance of a healthy Europe: in national polls, voters said that no election issue was nearly as important as the state of the Dutch economy and the effect Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is having on it.
For the Dutch, the elections are something of a return to normality after a decade of upheaval