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Dutch open coalition talks after elections

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Dutch politicians on Thursday began what could be months of bargaining to form a coalition after elections that put centrist parties back in control and relegated an anti-immigration party to the far-right fringe.

The Christian Democrats edged out a resurgent Labor Party by a 44-42 margin in the 150-seat parliament in Wednesday's vote, ensuring that Jan Peter Balkenende will remain prime minister for a second term.

But lacking enough support from like-minded pro-business parties, Balkenende appeared to have little choice than to strike a deal with its traditional center-left rival, Labor.

Dutch Queen Beatrix, who oversees the process of forming a government, was to meet her political advisers for a first round of discussions Thursday before seeing the heads of each political party, probably on Friday.

Balkenende, 46, refused to consider another alliance with the anti-immigration party of murdered populist Pim Fortuyn, blaming its internal chaos and power struggles for the collapse of his first government after just 87 days in office.

The road to a coalition pact with Labor looked long and bumpy.

"If you talk about finance, welfare, education and health care, we have great differences," Balkenende said after Wednesday's vote. Reaching an agreement with Labor couldn't be done quickly — if it could be done at all, he said.

Although the two parties have governed together before, most recently in the late 1980s, there was no guarantee they could come to terms again. After the 1977 election, they negotiated for six months before abandoning the attempt.

One point of conflict was over foreign policy. Although it had not been a campaign issue, Labor Party leader Wouter Bos said in a postelection speech he would "work to head off a war with Iraq." Balkenende's previous government had pledged to offer the United States logistical support in the event of war.

Bos said an alliance of the two major parties was inevitable, and that Balkenende shouldn't waste time while the nation suffers from the global economic downturn.

"Other coalition possibilities are mathematically possible, but they would be extremely unwise. The voter has spoken very clearly: The only stable, two-party government is the Christian Democrats with Labor," Bos said.

Balkenende was a largely unknown political researcher and part-time university lecturer on Christian philosophy when he was chosen leader of his deeply divided Christian Democratic Alliance a few months before the 2002 election.

Earlier, he held executive positions in a Christian television and radio broadcasting station and served on the municipal council of Amstelveen, outside Amsterdam.

Balkenende says his task is to restore confidence in government following the massive protest vote against the political elite last year expressed in the support for Fortuyn's party.

Balkenende "perfectly fit into the old Christian leadership tradition: solid, reliable, anything but innovative," said Dutch historian Henk te Velde on Radio Netherlands.

Although Fortuyn's party was sidelined, the anti-immigration, crime-busting legacy of the assassinated politician will be continued by the mainstream parties who have co-opted much of his platform.

A dapper, gay newspaper columnist and academic, Fortuyn turned the quiet, consensus-based world of Dutch politics on its head by speaking openly about immigration problems and crime. He was shot by an animal rights activist nine days before elections last May.