The Dutch went to the polls today to elect local authorities in a ballot seen as a gauge of the national mood and the strength of the far right, 10 days after the government collapsed and three months before national elections.
With almost 400 local authorities being elected, the focus was on only two, the votes in the capital The Hague and the central town of Almere, because of the campaign by the anti-Muslim populist Geert Wilders to establish his Freedom party in local government for the first time.
Wilders, who likens the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and wants Muslim immigrants deported, is bidding fair to win the general election in June, with the latest opinion polls giving him 27 of the 150 seats in The Netherlands’ highly fragmented political scene.
The maverick rightwinger is expected at the House of Lords on Friday on an invitation from the UK Independence Party for a screening of his incendiary anti-Islamic film, Fitna, after the Home Office barred him from entering Britain last year, a ban that was rescinded.
Today the town halls in The Hague and Almere were under heavy security because of the tension fanned by the Freedom party campaign. In both towns and elsewhere scores of men and women turned up to vote wearing headscarves, in an ironic protest against Wilders’s demand for a tax on Muslim headgear and for the wearing of headscarves to be banned in all public buildings.
His Freedom party is running for only two local authorities because of a lack of resources and candidates.
While local elections in Holland are usually a subdued affair focused on issues such as cycle paths and rubbish collection, today’s poll was dominated by immigration and Afghanistan.
The coalition government of Christian and social democrats fell 10 days ago because the Labour party, led by Wouter Bos, the finance minister, refused to extend the presence of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan who are to be withdrawn from August. It was the first Nato government to fall because of the war and the collapse looks likely to end the career of Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat prime minister in office for eight years. The Afghan pullout is popular and Labour has risen in the polls as a result. But Wilders appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the political disarray.
Voter turnout in The Hague and Almere was several points up today on four years ago, suggesting the Freedom party could do well. In Almere, a new town in central Holland with a population of nearly 200,000 and hardly any immigrants, Wilders’s party was being tipped to win. In The Hague the contest was more even, with Labour and liberals also expected to do well. In European elections last summer the Freedom party came second, trouncing Labour in its heartland cities of the western and northern coasts.
A Wilders win in the Dutch capital would be a sensation. Polls predict he could triple his vote at the general election.
Several centre and leftwing parties have erected a cordon sanitaire around Wilders, vowing not to coalesce with him in government. But the Christian Democrats and some rightwing liberals are hedging their bets.