Mainstream pro-European parties were heading for an unexpectedly clear victory in a Dutch general election on Wednesday, exit polls showed, dispelling concerns that radical eurosceptics would gain sway in a core euro zone country.
An NOS/RTL poll broadcast as soon as voting ended at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. British Time) gave caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's centre-right Liberals 41 seats in the 150-member lower house, a one-seat lead over the centre-left Labour Party on 40.
The hard-left Socialists, who oppose austerity and euro zone bailouts, and the far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party, who together dominated early campaigning, polled far worse than forecast and Geert Wilders' anti-euro populists were set to lose some seats.
Nevertheless the Netherlands is likely to remain an awkward, tough-talking member of the single currency area, strongly resisting transfers to euro zone debtors, even if the two main parties end up forming a coalition.
If confirmed, the outcome makes it more likely that Rutte, with the strongest international profile, will remain premier.
"It's clear that voters came out with massive support for the VVD (Liberals)," said Stef Blok, parliamentary floor leader of Rutte's party. "That's good news, but we won't start forming a government until the final results are in."
The centrist Christian Democrats, who dominated most post-war Dutch governments until the mid-2000s and were junior partners in Rutte's outgoing cabinet, slumped to their worst result in decades and were tied for fourth place with the Freedom Party in the exit polls.
"This looks like a landslide for the pro-European parties," said Famke Krumbmueller, western Europe analyst at Eurasia Group in London. "A lot of the voters who were undecided - and there were a lot of those - probably decided to vote strategically either for the Right or the Left, for one of the big parties."
The campaign ended up as a two-horse race between Rutte, 45, a former Unilever human resources manager dubbed the "Teflon" prime minister because of his ability to brush off disasters, and energetic Labour leader Diederik Samsom, 41, a former Greenpeace activist whose debating flair impressed voters.
Both leaders voted early, Samsom with his wife and children in the university town of Leiden, and Rutte alone in a polling station inside his old primary school in The Hague.
The caretaker prime minister, whose minority centre-right government was toppled by Wilders in April out of hostility to spending cuts to cut the budget deficit, vowed to pursue his tough policy on euro zone bailouts.
"There is a real choice in this election - also in Europe," Rutte told reporters after he voted. "Will we continue with our close relationship with Germany and Finland in fighting the euro crisis or will it make a shift to a more France-oriented Europe, which I will be against.
"I would like to stay on course with our coalition with the northern European countries," he added, saying it was important for the Netherlands to come out of the crisis stronger by sticking to its policy of fiscal discipline.
Wilders, who advocated leaving the euro and the European Union and banning Muslim immigration, appeared to be the big loser, punished for having brought down the government.
The dyed-blonde firebrand voted in the Hague protected by state-provided bodyguards after receiving death threats due to his anti-Islam stance.
The Liberals and Labour have played down talk of forming a coalition together. But parliamentary arithmetic suggests this is the most probable outcome given the highly fragmented political landscape.
"The Liberals and Labour are destined to be together" Philip van Praag, a political analyst at the University of Amsterdam, told Dutch news agency ANP.
The Netherlands is one of the few triple-A rated countries left in Europe and a long-standing ally of Germany in demanding strict adherence to EU budget rules. The election was seen as a barometer of northern European stamina - both for austerity and for bailouts to keep the single currency bloc intact.
Dutch taxpayers are frustrated at demands for belt-tightening, especially the steady erosion of their cherished welfare state and pensions, while having to stump up billions of euros to rescue what they see as profligate budget sinners.
"People have become negative about Europe because we give so much money to Greece and other countries and at the same time we are aware of the fact that we badly need money here to pay for schools, for the army and everything," Jaap Paauwe, a professor of management at Tilburg University, said.
As the Dutch voted, Germany's Constitutional Court gave a green light for the country to ratify the euro zone's new rescue fund and budget pact but also veto powers to parliament over any future increases in the size of the fund. The court rejected requests from eurosceptics and leftists who argued Germany was too exposed to unlimited financial liability.
"VOTE FOR YOUR JOB"
With the focus on the euro zone crisis and its impact on the domestic economy, Europe took centre stage during the campaign, pushing immigration off the radar after nearly a decade.
Employers' groups representing big businesses such as consumer electronics giant Philips as well as small and medium-sized firms that form the backbone of the Dutch economy ran a campaign highlighting the benefits of EU membership.
The main employers' group hung a banner outside its head office in The Hague proclaiming: "Vote for Europe and your job."
In a pamphlet distributed to voters entitled "The Netherlands earns its living from Europe", business groups said the export-dependent economy would lose 90 billion euros a year in sales without the euro and the EU's internal market.
In contrast, one of the biggest unions posted a cartoon on its website showing the electoral battleground as the Last Chance Saloon with caricatures of Rutte and his allies stalking the saloon bars in the Wild West.
Wilders wanted to turn the election into a referendum on euro zone membership, denouncing the heavy burden carried by Henk and Ingrid, his Dutch stereotypes of Mr and Mrs Average. His campaign was damaged when a real-life Henk with a wife called Ingrid attacked and killed an immigrant.
(Additional reporting by Svebor Kranjc in Leiden, Alan Wheatley and Christian Levaux in The Hague, and Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Editing by Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald)