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Tight finish for Dutch election

Dutch elections ended in a dead heat between right and left, exit polls suggest.

The splintered outcome spells weeks and possibly months of haggling to fashion a ruling coalition among parties deeply split on immigration and how to curb government spending.

The projections showed the free-market VVD and the left-leaning Labour Party winning 31 seats each in the 150-seat parliament, and the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders scoring its best-ever 22.

The governing Christian Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat with 21 seats - nearly half its current strength - and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told supporters he was leaving politics. Balkenende, who has led the government for eight years, will remain caretaker premier until a new cabinet is installed.

Experts said the results, if they hold up, will create a chaotic race to form a coalition commanding a 76-seat majority. Neither the right nor the left appears able to put together a government without major comprise.

"It's very exciting. But the real result is still to come, and it could go either way," said Labour Party leader Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam who will now vie to become prime minister.

One possible alliance would be a centrist coalition of VVD, Labour, and two smaller parties on the left, the Green-Left and Democrats-66. Other possibilities might include Wilders, who campaigned to stop immigration from Muslim countries. The Freedom Party more than doubled its current holding of nine.

Wilders' polarising politics made him unsavoury for all other parties, but his huge gains put him in a strong position. We really want to be part of government, we want to participate. I don't think the other parties can escape us," Wilders said. Other parties may try "to shove us aside, but we must be taken seriously."

Altogether, 10 parties will be represented in parliament. The configurations of possible coalitions were so complex, involving such disparate parties, that it could take months for potential allies to negotiate a framework on which they can govern.

The results were a stunning departure from pre-election polls, which had showed for weeks Mark Rutte's VVD party holding a commanding lead with Labour a distant second.

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