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Balkenende top Dutch PM choice, Wilders 5th - poll

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch voters would choose Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende for another term as leader, a poll showed on Thursday, with popular right-wing leader Geert Wilders fifth choice.

The Dutch government collapsed on Feb. 20 after Finance Minister Wouter Bos pulled his Labour Party out of the three-party coalition in a dispute over the future of the Dutch mission in Afghanistan.

An election is set for June 9.

Balkenende’s public support has lingered below 20 percent for months, whereas the anti-Islamist Wilders had surged to near the top of most polls.

But the Maurice de Hond poll showed 19 percent of voters would still choose Christian Democrat Balkenende as the next prime minister if they had the option of picking directly. He has held office since 2002.

If given an alternative to Balkenende as leader of the Christian Democrats, however, most voters would go for the other option. Some 54 percent picked Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings in the poll against 32 percent for Balkenende.

The Christian Democrats are expected to win but are likely to need three coalition partners to form a majority government.

Balkenende was followed in the preference poll by Bos on 17 percent, social liberal D66 leader Alexander Pechtold and Green Left head Femke Halsema on 13 percent and the Freedom Party’s Wilders on 11 percent.

Most polls show Wilders’ party will finish at least second in the June 9 parliamentary election, after what is expected to be a strong performance in local elections next week.

The other parties’ relations with him have become a source of controversy following calls by a senior Labour official for them to shun Wilders when it comes to forming a new government.

The poll found only 29 percent support for that call, with 31 percent saying they would not vote for their party if it specifically excluded Wilders.

Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Janet Lawrence