Geert Wilders is major winner in Dutch polls
Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders scored major gains in local elections on Wednesday, making him a serious challenger for power in the June national election, preliminary results showed.
In the first test of public opinion since the collapse of prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende's coalition government last month, Wilders's populist Party for Freedom (PVV) led in the city of Almere and was second in The Hague, the only two municipalities where Wilders chose to compete.
The fall of the Dutch cabinet and the upcoming campaign for parliamentary elections overshadowed Wednesday's municipal elections. The actual results for the nearly 400 municipal councils hardly seemed to matter. All interest was focused on the implications for the upcoming parliamentary race.
That would make it tough for Balkenende's Christian democratic CDA to forge a strong coalition without Wilders. Months of talks between parties, and the resulting policy vacuum, could threaten a fragile economic recovery and cast doubt on the scope of planned budget cuts. Dutch coalition governments are usually made up of two or three parties, but polls show the next coalition will likely need four or more parties to reach a majority in parliament.
The popularity of Wilders, who compares Islam to fascism and the Koran to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, has dented the image of the Netherlands as a country that has often portrayed itself in the past as a bastion of tolerance.
"The leftist elite still believes in multi-culturalism, coddling criminals, a European super-state and high taxes," Wilders told cheering supporters at a rally in Almere after polling ended on Wednesday. "But the rest of the Netherlands thinks differently. That silent majority now has a voice."
In Almere, the PVV won 21 percent of the vote to Labour's 18 percent, preliminary results showed. In The Hague, the PVV had 8 seats -- second to Labour with 10 seats. After counting 93 percent of the votes, experts put turnout in the local elections at 56 percent.
Balkenende, now heading a caretaker government, saw his coalition collapse on February 20 after his centre-right CDA failed to persuade its Labour Party partners to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. The 1,600 Dutch troops serving there with Nato are now likely to withdraw this year as planned.
Both CDA and Labour lost support compared to the last local elections in 2006, but Labour appeared to have benefited from its stance over Afghanistan. "The Labour Party is back," party leader Wouter Bos told supporters. "We were declared dead and buried, but with our struggle, humility and ideals we have come back."
Apart from Geert Wilders' party, the big winners in Wednesday's elections were the right-wing liberals VVD and left-wing liberals D66.