By Sam Wilson
BBC News, The Hague
The Dutch used to go in for consensus politics, but a swing from the centre to the margins in the latest election has left even seasoned observers scratching their heads.
Despite smiles, CDA members are facing tough coalition talks
Jan Peter Balkenende is set to remain prime minister, but it is far from clear who will join his Christian Democrats (CDA) in a coalition.
Many of the 30% or 40% of the voters who were undecided in the last few days seem to have plumped for the smaller parties, leading to a highly fragmented vote.
The biggest gains were made by the left-wing Socialist Party and the Party for Freedom of right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders.
Despite Mr Wilders' success, immigration was not as big an issue this time as in 2002, when the late anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn made it the focus of heated debate.
"There is no obvious coalition on either the left or the right," says Hella Liefting, deputy editor of Dutch news agency ANP.
"It's going to be very hard to work out. There will probably be either a minority coalition on the left or right, or some kind of 'monster coalition' of centrist parties, which will have to agree on some broad policy areas. But that will be hard because this election has not been about policy but about leadership."
The big story has been the giant leap forward by the Socialists, into an unprecedented third place.
They seem to have attracted left-wing voters turned off the Labour Party (PvdA) by fears it would side with the CDA and prolong the Balkenende premiership.
"Voters seemed to think we were not a strong left party, that we're too soft," said activist Karin Brakkee at the deflated PvdA election party in Amsterdam.
The Socialists took third place from the VVD (Liberal) Party - which has always been either in the government or the main opposition - and may now assume the lead opposition role themselves.
Coalition talks after the 2003 election lasted more than three months - a long time even in the Netherlands. Political observers expect a long round of negotiations this time too.
Labour supporters were unhappy with the party's performance
"Everyone is trying to make sense out of a very confusing result," said CDA supporter Wilco van Sminia, as the party's celebrations broke up early on Thursday in The Hague.
He believed the CDA and Labour leaders would have to get over their mutual animosity and take the six-seat Christian Union on board to make up a coalition.
"There's no other workable combination," he said. "The two parties in the middle don't like each other, so they have to get over this.
"In issue terms it is easy, but in emotional terms it is hard."
However, at a debate between party leaders after the results were clear, PvdA leader Wouter Bos appeared to rule the Christian Union out of consideration, saying the Socialists had earned a place in government.
"So that has to be the starting point," says Andy Clark, political commentator at Radio Netherlands.
He said the polarisation of the vote "leaves a big mess behind".
"I don't think any voters will be happy with a grand coalition really. People who voted CDA don't even agree with Bos, let alone the Socialists; and the same the other way round."
It is likely to take some time for the "mess" to be sorted out and for the next government of this country to be formed.
Dutch voters, like Arno Heltzel, an aid agency worker, are used to this sort of thing.
"In Holland," he said, "you vote, your party goes through all sorts of negotiations, and ends up different from the one you voted for."