Despite Wilders' anti-Islamic agenda, Rutte, 43, has not ruled out bringing him into a governing coalition.

Immigration issue

A Maurice de Hond poll released on Tuesday put the VVD on 34 seats, a decline of two seats from last week but still near their high point of 37 in recent polls.

The Labour Party (PvdA) was projected to win 30 seats, the PVV 18 and the Christian Democrats 24, down from 41 in the 2006 elections.

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The country's fourth election since 2002 comes after the Labour party brought down the centrist government of Jan Peter Balkenende, the prime minister, in March over its refusal to extend the Dutch military contribution to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan has barely been mentioned in the three-month campaign, as budget cuts rose swiftly up the agenda and immigration remained a key issue.

Wilders, a maverick politician who denounces Islam as a fascist religion, seized the spotlight early on in the election with a platform that included a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women.

At one time, his four-year-old party led opinion polls, but fell back dramatically to fourth place after attention shifted to the European financial crisis and demands to cut the country's deficit, now predicted to run at 6.3 per cent of GDP this year.

The focus on economic issues has helped Rutte's party gain prominence, but while it has previously joined several centre-right and centre-left coalitions, it has not led a government since before World War I.

Although less outspoken than Wilders, Rutte has warned that "welfare tourism" with open doors to migrants from Muslim countries and Eastern Europe would be a drain on the economy.

Budget concerns

Opinion polls suggest that Job Cohen, 62, the former mayor of Amsterdam who took over the Labour party leadership after the collapse of the government, is the most popular single candidate.

But his party lags in second place, well behind the VVD.

Cohen has warned Rutte that his plan to cut $24bn in government spending over five years will hurt the poor.

"We're not going to budget-cut the economy to death," Cohen said.

"We will make sure people keep their jobs. For that you need politicians that work together on solutions, a Netherlands where everybody counts."

The polls predict Wilders may win at least twice the nine seats he currently holds in parliament.

But it was unclear whether Wilders, whose unfettered rhetoric has made him the target of death threats, would be an acceptable partner in a coalition.

He faces a criminal trial later this year on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination with his 17-minute film Fitna, which portrayed Islam as encouraging terrorism and rejecting Western values.