Polling booths opened early yesterday in Dutch parliamentary elections after a deadlocked campaign between the governing Christian Democrats and the rival Labor Party -- in a contest that will determine whether one of Europe's tightest immigration regimes gets even tougher or takes a softer approach.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, hoping to cash in on an economic turnaround despite his reputation for blandness and weak leadership, has consistently dominated the polls, and his Christian Democrats appear on the track to becoming the largest party again.
But with opinion polls swerving wildly in the final weeks, Balkenende is facing a strong challenge from Wouter Bos, the opposition leader who hammered the conservatives for what he calls a heartless social policy but kept his criticism on immigration policy muted.
The roughly 10,000 polling stations opened at 7:30am. First predictions were expected as soon as they close at 9pm.
With as many as 40 percent of 12 million eligible voters still undecided in the final surveys, it was impossible to forecast winners and losers. The only safe prediction appeared to be that many weeks of coalition-building will be needed after the vote is in, most likely between Balkenende and Bos.
In four years in office, Balkenende has ushered his country -- renowned for its coffee shops selling hashish and its legalized prostitution and euthanasia -- through a tumultuous debate over immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism following two political murders.
Led by hardline Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, the government ended the Netherlands' traditional openness to foreigners and legislated more powers to the police and intelligence agencies. If Balkenende is returned to power, he will likely try to push through a new law banning head-to-toe Islamic robes such as the burqa.
While agreeing with most of the government's immigration crackdown, Bos wants a return to the Netherlands' traditional acceptance of newcomers.
"The key to a successful integration policy is twofold," Bos said in a debate on Tuesday night. "On one side ... we have to ask people to prepare to come to the Netherlands so they can adapt to our society's core values. But we must also ask our society to do something -- make people feel welcome here."
Bos also says the first thing he would do if he becomes prime minister is grant a pardon and citizenship to thousands of people whose asylum applications have been rejected and who have been living illegally for years in the Netherlands.
Balkenende insists the illegal migrants must be deported and said his government's immigration and integration policies have made progress in the last four years, "but there is still work to do."
Balkenende's Christian Democrats now have 44 seats in the 150-seat lower house, compared to 42 for Labor. Junior coalition partner the free-market Liberals have 26. Among another 21 fringe parties, the Socialist Party is expected to make a huge leap from its current nine seats.
Balkenende is profiting in the polls from an economic upswing he claims responsibility for after a raft cuts to welfare. Unemployment is among Europe's lowest at 4 percent.