Peter Mair: Huge influx of immigrants has changed Dutch society forever

What had been expected to be relatively run-of-the-mill local elections in the Netherlands quickly acquired a lot more significance once the Dutch government had unexpectedly collapsed over the Afghanistan issue. These results tell us little about Afghanistan, but they do offer a foretaste of the possible result of the general election that is planned for 9 June, and in particular they give us a good indication of the prospects for Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party.

Dutch politics has been in disarray since the traditional patterns were first challenged by Pim Fortuyn's populist protest in 2002. Fortuyn was, of course, assassinated just before that election, and his leaderless party fell apart soon afterwards. Wilders has now taken up Fortuyn's legacy, but in a much more extreme and direct manner.

His is an explicitly anti-Islam party, decrying the Koran, threatening deportation for immigrant offenders, promising a ban on the building of mosques and minarets, and so on. In this, he builds on, and further promotes, the inter-communal tensions that have been so evident in the Netherlands since Fortuyn, and which also hit the headlines with the assassination of film director Theo van Gogh and the hounding of the politician and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Dutch society, long one of the most homogenous in continental Europe, was never as tolerant as it appeared, and problems which rumbled for long under the surface have become steadily more acute as the share of the non- Western immigrant population has grown to become one of the largest in western Europe.

The Dutch party system is now exceptionally fragmented. No party is expected to win much more than 20 per cent in the coming election, which, given the extreme proportionality of the electoral system, means none is likely to win more than 30 of the 150 seats.

In this clouded Dutch landscape, Wilders's sharp and direct appeal wins a lot of favour. He also runs a highly disciplined party. There is no membership, and hence no activist layer which needs to be appeased, and the party's parliamentary group – currently nine seats – is firmly under his control.

In the local elections, he concentrated his efforts on just two flagship municipalities: Almere, a new city near Amsterdam, and The Hague, the seat of government. His party did tremendously well in both, topping the poll in Almere, and running a close second to Labour in The Hague.

All this is good for the image that Wilders promotes, of a party for straight talking and with popular appeal. It also positions him well for the general election, with the Freedom Party now being forecast to emerge as the first or second largest in parliament. The big question now is whether, and how, that success might translate into a role in government.

Peter Mair is Professor of Comparative Politics at the European University Institute and author of 'European Politics: Pasts, Presents, Futures'