Dutch elections ended in a dead heat between right and left, exit polls showed Wednesday, a splintered outcome that spelled 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 Labor 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 among rival ideologies.
"It's very exciting. But the real result is still to come, and it could go either way," said Labor 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, Labor, 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' 22 more than doubled its current holding of nine.
Wilders' polarizing politics made him unsavory 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 Labor a distant second.
Though the VVD didn't do as well as expected, it added nine seats and Rutte proclaimed it "a splendid victory."
"We had hoped to become the largest party in one blow. But I won't let anything get me down," he told cheering supporters.
The VVD has pledged to slash the deficit, mainly by cutting welfare programs and stimulating new jobs. Labor has criticized the program as harmful to the poor.
The Labor Party of former Amsterdam Mayor Cohen wants to preserve government social programs, raise taxes on the wealthy and make it easier for immigrants to integrate rather than punishing those that fail.
The result was a victory for Cohen, who resigned his post in Amsterdam in March to lead his flagging party in the campaign. The last time the Netherlands had a Labor prime minister was in 2002.
The preliminary projections were based on exit polls at 39 polling stations conducted by the private polling company Synovate, and commissioned by the country's three largest news organizations, the state-funded NOS broadcaster, RTL and the ANP news agency.
In recent years, the projection released immediately after voting ended have proven accurate within a few seats.
Returns from the 12 million eligible voters were expected through the night. Leaders of the main parties were scheduled to appear on national television early Thursday once the trend is clear.
The election was precipitated when Balkenende's center-right coalition collapsed in February over the Labor Party's refusal to extend the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has barely been mentioned in the campaign, which instead focused on traditional issues of immigration and the economy.
Wilders, the maverick politician who denounces Islam as a fascist religion, enjoyed a surge of popularity last year with a program that included a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women. But his popularity fell back dramatically after attention shifted to the European financial crisis and the country's deficit, now predicted to run at 6.3 percent of GDP this year.
The focus on economic issues helped Rutte's party gain prominence. Although the VVD has joined several center-right and center-left coalitions before, it has not led a government since before World War I.
"This country spends too much. For a lot of people it's better to collect social security than to work," said Willem Bosma, 32, a civil servant and VVD supporter casting his vote in Amsterdam's main train station.
Although not as outspoken against immigration as Wilders, Rutte has also argued that immigrants who cannot contribute to the Dutch economy should not be allowed to come, and would ban them from receiving welfare for 10 years after arrival.