By Toby Sterling and Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Dutch party leaders met on Friday for the first time since anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders won Wednesday's elections to begin the difficult and lengthy process of building a coalition.
Beating all predictions, Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) won 37 seats out of 150, well ahead of 25 for a joint Labour/Green ticket and 24 for the conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
That means the anti-EU, far-right veteran politician will have first pick at trying to build a coalition, which may prove a daunting task.
Wilders' election win led to protests in several cities. Muslim organisations said they were worried about their treatment under a possible Wilders government, while environmental groups including Greenpeace said they were worried he would gut environmental policies.
But Wilders cannot govern alone and will need to convince at least two or three parties to join him, with VVD and New Social Contract (NSC), a centrist upstart party, the most likely candidates.
They are both largely pro-EU and have both made clear membership is non-negotiable, as is respect for religious freedom and rule of law, to join in what would be the Netherlands' first far-right led government.
Arriving for the meeting, VVD leader Dilan Yesilgoz told reporters that her party would not join a new far right Cabinet, but would consider offering it outside support.
"However, we would make a centre-right cabinet possible," she said. "We will support constructive proposals."
Few members of Wilders' party or any of his preferred coalition partners other than the VVD have any experience in the executive branch of government.
"As far as I can see, I dare to say this is not going to be the most easy formation we've ever had," NSC leader Pieter Omtzigt said, adding that remarks he made on election night had been wrongly interpreted as a guarantee he was willing to join a coalition under Wilders.
Party leaders will name a "scout" who will inventory grounds for coalition talks and who prefers to work with whom.
The Dutch are no strangers to long talks to build a coalition. Last time, that took a record-breaking 299 days.
Should Wilders' efforts eventually fail, other parties could try to build a more centrist coalition without him. New elections are the final option if no coalition deal can be reached.
Among smaller parties, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (Boer Burger Beweging – BBB) said it would be willing to govern with Wilders. Leader Caroline van der Plas arrived for the talks in style, riding in a green tractor.
She told reporters on Thursday she expected Wilders would drop the most objectionable parts of his party's platform in order to win support.
"Wilders has promised to be milder, now he has to show it," she said.
The BBB's seven seats in the lower house of parliament wouldn't be needed for a majority there, but it holds a large number of seats in the senate, which has the power to block legislation.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Bart Meijer; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)