By Thomas Escritt and Gilbert Kreijger
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Mainstream pro-European parties looked set to dominate elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday, dispelling concerns that radical eurosceptics would gain sway in a core euro zone country and push to quit the European Union or flout its budget rules.
But the Netherlands is likely to remain an awkward, tough-talking member of the single currency area, strongly resisting transfers to euro zone debtors, regardless of whether caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals or the center-left Labour Party of Diederik Samsom win the most seats.
Opinion polls on Tuesday showed the Liberals and Labour on 36 seats each or the Liberals fractionally in front, with the hard-left Socialists and the far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party fading in third and fourth place respectively.
That makes it more likely, though not certain, that Rutte, with the strongest international profile, will remain premier.
Turnout stood at 48 percent of eligible voters at 5:45 p.m., roughly the same level as the last election two years ago, broadcasters said. Polling stations close at 9 p.m. local time.
The final days of campaigning became a two-horse race between Rutte, 45, a former Unilever human resources manager dubbed the "Teflon" prime minister because of his ability to brush off disasters, and the energetic Samsom, 41, a former Greenpeace activist whose debating flair wowed voters.
Both leaders voted early, Samsom with his wife and children in the university town of Leiden, and Rutte alone in a polling station inside his old primary school in The Hague.
"There is a real choice in this election - also in Europe," Rutte told reporters after he voted. "Will we continue with our close relationship with Germany and Finland in fighting the euro crisis or will it make a shift to a more France-oriented Europe, which I will be against.
"I would like to stay on course with our coalition with the northern European countries," he added, saying it was important for the Netherlands to come out of the crisis stronger by sticking to its policy of fiscal discipline.
The far-right populist Geert Wilders, who criticizes Europe and Muslim immigration, also voted in The Hague, accompanied by his state-provided bodyguards. Wilders received death threats due to anti-Islam comments.
Both the Liberals and Labour have played down talk of a coalition, together with one or two smaller parties. But parliamentary arithmetic suggests this is the most probable outcome given the highly fragmented political landscape.
Still, about a fifth of the 12.5 million voters said they were undecided, leaving room for surprises.
Nienke van Zaambeek, a psychologist, said she had voted for small GreenLeft party because she was worried about the impact of liberalization in the health care sector.
"The influence of private companies is getting ever bigger, and the right-wing government has been in favor of more privatization," she said after casting her vote in a polling booth at Amsterdam's central train station.
The Netherlands is one of the few triple-A rated countries left in Europe and a long-standing ally of Germany in demanding strict adherence to EU budget rules. The election was seen as a barometer of northern European stamina - both for austerity and for bailouts to keep the single currency bloc intact.
Dutch taxpayers are frustrated at demands for belt-tightening, especially the steady erosion of their cherished welfare state and pensions, while having to stump up billions of euros to rescue what they see as profligate budget sinners.
"People have become negative about Europe because we give so much money to Greece and other countries and at the same time we are aware of the fact that we badly need money here to pay for schools, for the army and everything," Jaap Paauwe, a professor of management at Tilburg University, said.
As the Dutch voted, Germany's Constitutional Court gave a green light for the country to ratify the euro zone's new rescue fund and budget pact but also veto powers to parliament over any future increases in the size of the fund. The court rejected requests from eurosceptics and leftists who argued Germany was too exposed to unlimited financial liability.
"VOTE FOR YOUR JOB"
With the focus on the euro zone crisis and its impact on the domestic economy, Europe took center stage during the campaign, pushing immigration off the radar after nearly a decade.
Employers' groups representing big businesses such as consumer electronics giant Philips as well as small and medium-sized firms that form the backbone of the Dutch economy ran a campaign highlighting the benefits of EU membership.
The main employers' group hung a banner outside its head office in The Hague proclaiming: "Vote for Europe and your job."
In a pamphlet distributed to voters entitled "The Netherlands earns its living from Europe", business groups said the export-dependent economy would lose 90 billion euros a year in sales without the euro and the EU's internal market.
In contrast, one of the biggest unions posted a cartoon on its website showing the electoral battleground as the Last Chance Saloon with caricatures of Rutte and his allies stalking the saloon bars in the Wild West.
Fears over Europe initially played in favor of the two main populist parties, particularly the Socialist Party which a month ago was either leading or a close second in opinion polls.
The Socialists have waned largely because of the dismal showing of their leader Emile Roemer, a former teacher, in an almost nightly marathon of television debates.
Wilders's anti-Islam Freedom Party, which is calling for the Netherlands to quit the euro, the EU and turn away all Muslims, has also lost support.
Some of his followers are disappointed that he squandered his real power as Rutte's chief ally in parliament when he brought down the government in April by refusing to support another package of budget cuts.
Wilders wanted to turn the election into a referendum on euro zone membership, denouncing the heavy burden carried by Henk and Ingrid, his Dutch stereotypes of Mr. and Mrs. Average. His campaign was damaged when a real-life Henk with a wife called Ingrid attacked and killed an immigrant.
The latest polls suggested voters had been coaxed back into the center. Marijke Jongbloed, a documentary maker, told Reuters she normally voted for the Socialist Party (SP), but would probably vote Labour this time.
"I do support the SP but for premier I would vote for Diederik Samsom, he's more cosmopolitan and more on the ball, and these days you have to mix and mingle with European leaders, schmoozing them, and I think Samsom is a little bit more savvy in this respect," she said.
(Additional reporting by Svebor Kranjc in Leiden, Alan Wheatley and Christian Levaux in The Hague, and Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Editing by Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald)
(This story was refiled to add local time of polling stations closing)