Voting began early Wednesday following perhaps the most divisive election campaign in the Netherlands since World War II, with pollsters predicting a close result and a fragmented parliament.
Most polling stations opened at 7.30 (6.30 GMT), although a few opened an hour earlier, and voting commencing at several polling places at train stations shortly after midnight.
Some 13 million people are eligible to cast a ballot for up to 28 parties, depending on the region.
An initial exit poll by Ipsos opinion research was expected immediately after 2100 (2000 GMT) when the last polling stations close.
Up to 14 parties are expected to gain at least one seat in the 150-member lower house.
According to the Central Bureau for Statistics, there are 12.9 million eligible voters in the Netherlands, and a further 70,000 abroad.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD was expected to narrowly edge out the Party for Freedom (PVV) of anti-Islamic firebrand Geert Wilders, with both parties set to get around 24 seats.
But with a large percentage of undecided voters right up to election day, the result was impossible to call.
During Monday evening’s head-to-head debate with Rutte, Wilders demanded stronger action against Turks in the Netherlands who show greater loyalty to Turkey than their adopted country, calling them a “fifth column.”
Viewers called the debate a win for Rutte, who once again played the prime ministerial card to effect.
“Rutte appeared to score best in virtually all areas.
“People said his tone was better, more convincing than Wilders,” presenters EenVandaag said on the basis of a survey of 9,000 viewers.
In the debate, Rutte made clear that he would not cooperate with Wilders, whatever the outcome.
“Not even in a tolerance structure – no, never, no,” he said.
Wilders provided “tolerance”, his party did not join the government, but promised to give it legislative support, to a previous short-lived Rutte government between 2010 and 2012.
“Nobody believes Mark Rutte any more,” Wilders responded, constantly stressing his anti-Islam theme.
Behind the VVD, PVV and CDA, the socially liberal D66 is on 18 seats according to the polls.
Green-Left is on 17, the Socialist Party on 15 and the much-diminished Labour Party (PvdA) on 11 make up the list of major parties.
Other parties are on five per cent or less, which translates to six seats or less.
Since 2012, Rutte’s VVD has governed in coalition with the PvdA, the two parties having a narrow majority.
Both have seen support fall, with Wilders’ PVV the main beneficiary.
With no clear outcome in sight and the firewall around the PVV erected by all other major parties, coalition talks are predicted to be difficult and drawn-out. (NAN)