Voters in the Netherlands have gone to the polls in municipal elections. Political parties opposing Muslim immigration are expected to gain ground in the run-up to early national elections in June.
Dutch local polls will set the tone for national elections
The local elections are taking place on Wednesday in 394 cities and theoretically cover matters such as parking fees and taxes on dog ownership. But local concerns have been put on the back burner this time, with issues such as immigration, security and the economy influencing campaigning.
The poll marks the first test of public opinion after the central government collapsed less than two weeks ago. National politicians have put their positions on the NATO mission in Afghanistan and immigrant crime on display in hopes of influencing the local vote.
These would be "the most nationally-focused local elections ever," the left-wing Volkskrant newspaper said. Pollsters predicted a difficult battle for the two biggest parties - the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and the labor PvdA.
"Today is the day of truth for the CDA and the PvdA," said the Telegraaf newspaper, referring to the February 20 collapse of the national ruling coalition. "The nation will today present these belligerents with the bill for the dramatic collapse of their cabinet."
PvdA leader Wouter Bos withdrew his party from the national government last month in a spat with the CDA over extending the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan. The collapse, the fourth for a cabinet led by Balkenende in eight years, has come at a time when the Netherlands is trying to balance the needs for budget cuts with sustaining the economy's slow recovery from a long recession.
Wilders the big winner?
Polls indicate that both the CDA and the PvdA have been damaged ahead of the national polls brought forward to June 9. The big winner is expected to be the extreme right-wing, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders. His Freedom Party (PVV) hopes to appeal to a population that is turning increasingly inward as the economy struggles and social tensions rise.
The PVV - with its mission to "stop the Islamization of the Netherlands" - was only running in Wednesday's elections in two cities: The Hague and Almere. The former is the seat of the government and the Netherlands' third largest city with 442,000 inhabitants. Almere has a population of 187,000. The PVV is contesting locally there for the first time after making a strong showing there in European parliament elections in 2008. Most polls expect the PVV to win in Almere and come second or third in The Hague.
"The sun shines. That is befitting for the fresh sounds that the Freedom Party will bring to The Hague and Almere," Wilders said while casting his vote in The Hague on Wednesday.
Wilders is a vocal critic of Islam, calling it a violent religion
Wilders is facing prosecution for allegedly inciting racial hatred with remarks including calling the Koran a "fascist" book. He has called for it to be banned. The politician has already created a stir by saying he wants to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in city council buildings, although observers doubt such a plan would be legal.
Some 12 million Dutch out of a total 16.5 million are registered to vote in 394 municipalities for nearly 9,000 councilors countrywide. Official results will be announced in two days' time, after which municipal councils will propose candidates for mayor to be nominated by head of state Queen Beatrix.
Editor: Michael Lawton