THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday (March 18) aimed to form a new coalition by the summer after sealing a fourth term in office in coronavirus-dominated elections.
Already one of Europe's longest serving leaders after 10 years in power, Rutte and his liberal VVD party look set to have a mandate to form a coalition.
With most ballots counted, the VVD is projected to win 35 seats in the 150 seat parliament, while the other big winner of the night was the centrist pro-EU D66 party, with 23.
Anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders lost his place as the second biggest party, dropping to 17 seats, while populist, virus-sceptic Thierry Baudet surged.
Rutte has ruled out forming a coalition with either Wilders or Baudet.
Senior party officials met the head of the lower chamber of parliament on Thursday afternoon to discuss how to form a government, Dutch media reported.
Annemarie Jorritsma from Rutte's party said the new coalition should be ready "before the summer", but warned the formal negotiations due to start Monday would be "complex", public broadcaster NOS said.
After the last elections in 2017 it took a record seven months to form a coalition.
'Another 10 years'
Rutte said late on Wednesday it was "obvious" his party would talk with D66, led by foreign trade minister Sigrid Kaag, to form a coalition.
He would "also very much like to work with the CDA", the Christian Democratic Appeal of finance minister Wopke Hoekstra despite it falling to 15 seats.
Both parties were in Rutte's previous coalition, which resigned in January over a scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of childcare fraud.
Voters who cast their ballots over three days of socially-distanced election from Monday to Wednesday said the government had to focus on recovery.
"They should have handled the corona situation better. But I think after everyone is vaccinated, just getting the economy rolling again might be very important to me," petrol station employee Luke De Brouwer said in The Hague.
Teacher Corinne Metzlar meanwhile said Rutte was "marvelous".
"He's doing a great job for our country. And with D66, with Mrs Kaag, I think they will be a very good couple," she said.
Rutte said late on Wednesday voters had given his party an "overwhelming vote of confidence".
He conceded that "not everything has gone well in the last 10 years" but said the key issue was how to "rebuild" the country after the coronavirus pandemic.
Rutte would become the longest serving prime minister in Dutch history if he is still in power by the end of 2022.
'Future won't wait'
But forming a new coalition could be complicated as the three parties will fall two seats short of a simple majority of 76, meaning they will have to find another partner or partners.
The political landscape is further complicated by the fact that the Dutch parliament is set to have a record-equalling 17 parties.
Dutch media said the coalition could look towards the left, as the smallest party in the current coalition, the centre-right Christen Unie, may not be a good fit with D66.
That would boost for traditional left-wing parties that had a bad night.
Meanwhile, former UN diplomat Kaag was pictured dancing on a table after D66's strong showing in the election.
"What a wonderful evening," she tweeted. "Now time to get started, the future won't wait."
During the campaign she criticised Rutte's stance on the EU, where he has been dubbed "Mr No" for holding out on financial aid to virus-hit southern countries.
Populist parties meanwhile maintain a significant if fragmented place in parliament.
Despite bleached-blonde far-right leader Wilders losing some seats, his PVV (Freedom Party) remains the third largest, with his fiery rhetoric on Islam still appealing to some voters.
Meanwhile, Thierry Baudet's Forum for Democracy apparently benefited from his anti-vaccine comments and for being the only leader to hold rallies despite the pandemic, quadrupling its number of seats to eight.
The Netherlands has recorded more than 1.1 million coronavirus infections and 16,000 deaths, and is currently under its most stringent health measures yet including a curfew that sparked riots in January.