Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's center-right Christian Democrats won the most seats in Dutch elections, but results yesterday showed a sharply divided nation with no alliance winning a clear mandate to govern.
Dutch support was split between a government coalition that has been pro-business and tough on immigration and the socialists -- led by the Labor Party -- promoting a softer approach.
It was clear no combination of left- or right-wing parties will easily muster a majority in parliament.
"It will take some time," said Balkenende. "All parties will have to analyze how we can rule the country together. How can we give an answer to the questions of the Dutch electorate," he asked.
The results portend weeks, possibly months, of coalition haggling, with smaller parties in a position to exact a heavy price for their support. Even if talks are successful for one side or the other, the outcome will be an unwieldy and unstable government that will have difficulty completing a four-year term.
The current center-right coalition is impossible to continue after major losses for Balkenende's current government partner, the free-market Liberal Party. Bickering and personal attacks between the Christian Democrats and the Labor Party made a "grand coalition" also difficult.
"It's chaos. It is extremely difficult to distill a government out of these results," said Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm of the Liberal Party.
Analysts said that the election highlighted the nation's polarization, with big gains scored by parties well to the left and right of center.
That could lead the mainstream centrists to re-examine their rivalries and join together, but that will not be easy.
"They need time to adapt to one another," said Jos de Beus, a political scientist at Amsterdam University.
Balkenende's Christian Democrats won with a wider-than-expected margin over Labor, its closest rival, led by Wouter Bos -- capturing at least 41 seats to Labor's 32, according to near complete results. The Liberals dropped to 22 seats, a loss of six.