The anti-Islam Freedom Party of far-right politician Geert Wilders has made major gains in local elections held in the Netherlands. Taking part in two cities it has become the largest party in Almere and the second largest in The Hague.
The two largest parties in the former coalition government both lost seats on municipal councils. The Labour Party (PvdA), led by Wouter Bos, and the Christian Democrats (CDA), led by now caretaker prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, paid the price for three years of difficult government
Mr Wilders was visibly buoyed by the results and was characteristically combative saying this was the first step in the upcoming campaign for parliamentary elections.
"The national campaign begins today in Almere and The Hague, tomorrow in all of the Netherlands… On 9 June, we'll conquer the Netherlands," said Mr Wilders.
The fall of the Dutch cabinet and the upcoming campaign for parliamentary elections overshadowed Wednesday's municipal elections in the Netherlands. 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.
And even though it only took part in two municipalities it was clear the day's big winner was the right-wing populist party of Geert Wilders.
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Eye on the prize
And, of course, Mr Wilders now has his eye on the larger prize. His Freedom Party has profited more than any other from the fall of the Dutch cabinet ten days ago. The party currently has nine seats in parliament (out of 150).
If voters had elected a new parliament on Wednesday, the Freedom Party would have won between 24 and 27 seats. In one poll, it would be the largest single party. If his party does that well come June, Geert Wilders could become the next prime minister.
The national opinion polls also indicate that forming the next coalition will be more difficult than ever. Dutch coalition governments are usually made up of two or three parties. The next coalition will likely need four or more parties to reach a majority in parliament.
Will he or won't he?
Then there is the question of whether Geert Wilder's Freedom Party can join a coalition. Many mainstream parties cannot imagine forming a coalition with the Freedom Party due to its extreme views.
And while Geert Wilders says he is ready to make the compromises necessary to form partnerships with other parties, he is as yet untested.
That will soon change. The Freedom Party will feel the pressure to govern in the two cities, Almere and The Hague, where they did so well in municipal elections. Just days before the election, Mr Wilders said a ban on Muslim headscarves in public places would be non-negotiable. No other party will accept such a ban.
In fact, the call generated protests on election day. In Almere and The Hague, dozens of people, men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, came to vote wearing headscarves.
It was a painful day for the biggest established parties with the two largest parties in the former coalition government both losing heavily. The Labour Party and the Christian Democrats ultimately paid the price for three years of difficult government.
Caretaker Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Christian Democrat, tried to make the best of the poor results. In reaction, he said, "Of course we wanted the results to be better, and our local candidates deserve better. But of course national events of the past two weeks played a role in these elections."
The Labour Party also lost seats compared to four years ago. However, the losses were not as large as they could have been. Labour gained popularity in the wake of the fall of the government. All the more surprising since an unwritten rule in Dutch politics says that the party who brings about the fall of a cabinet usually looses seats.
Besides Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, the big winners in Wednesday's elections were the Green Left, and Democrat 66.
Local parties were frustrated by the domination of national politics. During the campaign, parties used sex and silliness to try to steal the attention back to local issues, but without much success.
The Dutch municipal elections were the starting gun for an intense three-month campaign.