Dutch voters overwhelmingly backed pro-European parties in yesterday's (12 September) general election, choosing centrist parties committed to debt-busting austerity.
With 96% of votes counted, caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal party (VVD) has won 41 seats in the 150-member lower house, only two more seats than the rival Labour party (PvdA).
"We won our greatest victory in history and for the second time became the largest party in the Netherlands," Rutte told supporters after Labour leader Diederik Samsom telephoned him and acknowledged his defeat, Reuters reported.
Rutte declined to say which parties he would approach as coalition partners. During the election campaign, the Liberals and Labour have played down talks of forming a coalition together.
However, the election result suggests that might be the most likely outcome due to the highly fragmented Dutch political landscape.
"VVD and PvdA could form a government with just the two of them," Andy Langenkamp, global political analyst at ECR Research and an expert on Dutch politics, told EURACTIV. "During one of the last TV-debates, Rutte and Samsom looked like they were ready to govern with each other and were giving each other compliments."
"They will not have a majority in the Senate, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. The two parties can try to rely on ad hoc majorities in the Senate," Langenkamp said.
If Rutte and Samson want to have an even more comfortable majority in the House of Representatives and make things easier in the Senate, they could opt for the social-liberal party D66 as a coalition partner.
The parties would still not have a majority in the Senate (35 of the 75 seats), Langenkamp said, but D66 could act as foundation for a centrist government, as party leader Alexander Pechtold has already suggested.
"With a coalition consisting of VVD, PvdA and D66, the Netherlands will be governed by three parties which have all gained seats compared to 2010. That would be a sign of respecting the wishes of the electorate," said the political analyst.
Samsom, who's a former chief executive of a green energy company and Greenpeace activist, said on election night that the Netherlands needs a stable government "as soon as possible".
"We would like to participate in that government," Samsom said, "as long as tonight's results can be faithfully represented in the new cabinet's programme."
Samsom will probably not join a government coalition however, Langenkamp said, as he has already stated that he would only join as prime minister. Otherwise he would stay on as a representative and leader of his faction in the House.
"Only if the coalition negotiations get very grim, he could probably be convinced to become vice prime minister and accept a minister post," Langenkamp said.
Anti-EU parties suffer defeat
Rutte's minority centre-right government was toppled by the anti-EU, far-right Freedom party (PVV) led by Geert Wilders in April out of hostility to spending cuts to trim the budget deficit. PVV is set to lose half its seats compared to the last election two years ago.
Hans Vollaard, assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University, told EURACTIV it was still "surprising" that Wilders managed to keep 13 seats given his party's shifting during the campaign and its role in bringing down the previous government. During the campaign, PVV changed focus from its traditional anti-immigration platform to the eurozone bailouts.
The other big anti-EU party on the other flank, the left-leaning Socialist party (SP), looks like it will keep its 15 seats in the Dutch parliament. However, this outcome is seen as a defeat since party leader Emile Roemer was leading the opinion polls only three weeks ago.
"The most important development is that the Dutch vote shows a pro-Europe trend. Voters appear to have given a ringing endorsement to centrist parties," Langenkamp said.
"Whatever coalition Rutte will come up with, Brussels and the rest of the EU will be pleased. It is likely that the new government will chose a more pro-European path than the previous government," Langenkamp continued.
Since the Second World War, it has sometimes taken more than three months to form a Dutch government, but as EURACTIV earlier reported, this does not mean that the Netherlands is unable to make decisions at EU-level.
"Of course a new government can do that more easily, but particularly the last two years have shown that coalition parties can conclude deals particularly on EU issues so there is a kind of flexibility on EU issues in the Dutch parliament," Vollaard said.