(RFE/RL) -- Early returns in Dutch municipal elections showed the party known for its tough stances on immigration and Islam making big gains in a result seen as a possible foreshadowing of upcoming national elections.
Preliminary results showed that the Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders came first in Almere, east of the capital, Amsterdam, and second in The Hague behind the Labor Party (PvdA).
Speaking to supporters today, Wilders said, "What is possible in The Hague and Almere is possible all over the country." He added that, in the national vote, "we will become the biggest party in the Netherlands."
Full results won't be certified until March 5.
Wilders' party, set up in 2006 to "stop the Islamization of the Netherlands," contested only those two cities in its first municipal election on March 3, three months ahead of early general elections on June 9.
The center-left national government collapsed last month, when the PvdA withdrew from the ruling coalition in a spat with the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) over extending the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan.
Outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has said the 1,600 Dutch troops serving with the NATO-led force in the province of Oruzgan were now likely to withdraw in August as planned.
The PvdA appeared to have benefited from its stance over Afghanistan. Its leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, told supporters, "We were declared dead and buried, but with our struggle, humility and ideals we have come back."
"The Labor Party today is without any doubt the leading progressive party in the Netherlands," Bos added. "It gives us hope and confidence for June 9."
An opinion poll showed that the PVV would win the most seats -- 27 in the 150-member Dutch parliament -- in the June 9 election. But most left-leaning parties have already said they would not work with Wilders.
Political observers say that, with the country's two main parties, the CDA and PvdA, at odds, and other parties split equally between left and right, it may prove very difficult for either side to build a workable coalition.
Wilders' party came in second in the European elections of June 2009 with 16.7 percent of the vote behind the CDA.
Enemy Of Islam
The popularity of Wilders, known for his repeated public statements attacking Muslims, has dented the image of the Netherlands as a country that has often portrayed itself as a bastion of tolerance.
Muslims make up about 6 percent of the population, and Wilders says their presence threatens the Dutch way of life.
Wilders' 17-minute film stigmatizing Islam, "Fitna," received worldwide attention in 2008 when its release on the Internet sparked condemnation by authorities in Afghanistan, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan.
The film, whose title means "strife" in Arabic, juxtaposes verses from the Koran with images of beheadings, attacks by Islamic terrorists, and clerics calling for jihad.
A year ago Wilders was turned back at London's Heathrow Airport because, authorities feared his visit would incite violence. He was allowed into Britain several months later after a court overturned the ban.
Wilders is awaiting trial in the Netherlands for allegedly inciting racial hatred with remarks that include equating the Koran and Islam with the ideology of Nazism and Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf." Wilders has claimed he was the victim of "an attack on freedom of expression."
with agency reports