Wilders party set for gains in Dutch poll

Surge in support for anti-Islam politician after call for ban on Muslims
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The Independent Online

Dutch voters went to the polls in local elections yesterday, with political parties opposing Muslim immigration expected to make gains before national elections in June. The elections in 394 local authorities cover matters such as parking fees and taxes on dog ownership – in theory at least. But national politicians have stated their stances on the Nato mission in Afghanistan and immigrant crime in the hope of influencing the local vote.

The party of the prominent anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders participated in only two cities: The Hague, where most opinion polls put it in second place, and Almere, where it is running neck-and-neck with Labour. Mr Wilders faces prosecution for allegedly inciting racial hatred with remarks including calling the Koran a "fascist" book and calling for it to be banned.

Facing up to Labour leader Wouter Bos in a televised pre-election debate, Mr Wilders called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and especially Moroccans because "they cause problems, they cause crime, they cause intimidation and violence.

"For the people that are already here, I say: if you adapt to Dutch laws and Dutch norms and values, you're welcome to stay," Mr Wilders said. "But if you don't, then you go to jail and as far as I'm concerned, out of the country." Mr Bos responded that "we'll only help this nation move forward if we stop thinking in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims".

He cited examples of a prominent Dutch football player, a comedian and a politician of Moroccan ancestry and said that he doubted their religion influenced their abilities.

"I think in terms of citizens that participate in society and basically behave and those that don't," he said. "What their religion is, that's not my business." After a major wave of immigration in the 1990s, Muslims make up about 6 per cent of the Dutch population.

Anti-immigrant political parties have been a major force in Dutch politics since the national elections of 2002, when a populist called Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist days before the vote. His party finished second and joined a right-wing cabinet.

Mr Wilders is seen as an heir to Fortuyn, and his Freedom Party finished in second place among Dutch parties in European elections last year.

In the current local elections, Labour saw a late surge in the opinion polls after walking out of the cabinet over Dutch involvement in the Afghanistan war last month.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's centrist government collapsed, forcing the recall of 1,600 Dutch soldiers in the province of Uruzgan at the completion of their mission in August.

Dutch national elections are scheduled for 9 June. Official results in the local elections will be announced tomorrow morning.