Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

The opportunity Geert Wilders has waited for

By John Tyler
Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders says his party is ready to find the middle ground

A party that calls Islam a backward religion, wants a ban on headscarves in public life and has compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf has made major gains in local elections in the Netherlands.

Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) has become the biggest party in the medium-sized city of Almere, and the second biggest in the political capital of the Netherlands, The Hague.

Mr Wilders was visibly buoyed by the results, but was also combative in his reaction, and called the results the first step in the upcoming campaign for parliamentary elections.

"The national campaign begins today. Today, in Almere and The Hague, tomorrow in all of the Netherlands… On 9 June, we'll conquer the Netherlands," he said.

The question remains whether the party will be able to join local government in those two cities. Dutch politics features a plethora of parties, and compromise is necessary to form coalitions.

Geert Wilders has said his party is ready to find the middle ground, but now he will be tested. Other Dutch parties are loath to work together with the PVV because of its outspoken standpoints.

Controversy fuels popularity

These elections are seen as an important indicator as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in June. The Labour Party's withdrawal from the Dutch cabinet on 20 February, causing the cabinet to fall, is just the opportunity Geert Wilders has been waiting for.

Dutch protesters wear headscarves in an anti-Wilders demonstration
Anti-Wilders protesters have donned headscarves in sympathy with Muslims

Since releasing the anti-Islam film Fitna two years ago, and being refused entry into the UK last year, Mr Wilders has been riding high in the opinion polls. His party has consistently polled as one of the biggest in the country.

The fact that he has been charged with fomenting hatred and discrimination has, if anything, only served to increase his popularity, at home and abroad.

The trial is currently on hold after two preliminary hearings, but will resume in the summer, and ultimately Wilders could face two years in prison if convicted.

But this, too, seems to have worked in the politician's favour, with many seeing him as a champion of the right to free speech.

Mr Wilders is also riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment. Many Dutch voters are tired of politics-as-usual. That is reflected by the relatively poor showing in these municipal elections by the two major parties that formed the recent governing coalition, the Labour Party and the Christian Democrats.

Other parties which did well were the liberal D66 and the left-wing Green Left party - the two parties that have been most vocal against Geert Wilders.

The Dutch voters are split, but it is clear the established parties are struggling to stay in touch with them.

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