The Dutch centre-right Liberal Party and Labour tied with 31 parliament seats each out of 150 according to an early exit poll on Wednesday.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), an extreme anti-immigrant party, appeared to have leapt to third spot with 23 seats, ahead of the ruling Christian Democrats on 21.

The People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), led by 43-year-old Mark Rutte, had been widely expected to come on top in pre-election polls, but appeared to have lost steam overnight to stand level with the Labour Party of Job Cohen.

The projections, announced soon after polls closed at 1900 GMT, were based on exit polls by the private polling company Synovate.

The poll was commissioned by the country's three largest news organisations, the state-funded NOS broadcaster, RTL and the ANP news agency.

In recent years, the projections have proven accurate within a few seats.

'Too extreme'

As with all post-war Dutch governments, the winners will have to form a coalition to ensure a parliamentary majority of at least 76 seats.

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The most commonly expected scenario had put the VVD together with the Christian Democrats and the PVV.

However, speaking to Al Jazeera from Amsterdan, Frits Wester, a political journalist, said that he thought such a scenario was unlikely.

Wester said: "There's no party who really wants to form a coalition with the party of Geert Wilders.

"His expressions about the Islam, his criticism of the Islam, is too extreme for the Netherlands, so no party is really willing to form a coalition with him.

"And also his solutions for the financial crisis are a little bit old fashioned, so I don't think he will be part of the next coalition."

Immigration concerns

The country's fourth election since 2002 came 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 was barely mentioned in the three-month campaign, as budget cuts rose swiftly up the agenda and immigration remained a key issue.

Wilders, a politician who has denounced 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, Wilders' four-year-old party led opinion polls, but had fallen 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.

Wilders 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.

Economic issues

The focus on economic issues had 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 had warned that "welfare tourism" with open doors to migrants from Muslim countries and Eastern Europe would be a drain on the economy.

Cohen, 62, 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."