Almere (Netherlands): Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders celebrated a symbolic breakthrough Thursday as his party won control of its first municipality in a show of strength ahead of June`s general election.
"What is possible in The Hague and Almere is possible all over the country," Wilders said after his Party for Freedom (PVV) came first and second in the only two out of 394 municipalities it contested in local polls Wednesday.
"It`s a springboard for our victory. We will become the biggest party in the Netherlands on June 9."
While the mainstream Christian Democratic and Labour parties lost support, the PVV emerged with the largest share of the vote (21.6 percent) in Almere, a city of nearly 190,000 people near Amsterdam.
The party also came second in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and the third largest city with a population of 442,000.
The PVV`s success in Almere met with shock and anger among Muslims in the city where a third of the population is of immigrant origin.
"I am afraid that it will lead to more hatred," said 20-year-old student Sakina Buyatui, a resident of a city where a third of the population is of immigrant origin.
The PVV had previously won nine of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament when it contested its first elections in 2006 and won four of the country`s 25 European parliament seats in elections last June.
But some recent polls have shown it is now the most popular party in the Netherlands, traditionally seen as a bastion of tolerance.
The cornerstone of Wilders` party is his pledge to "stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands" and he has run into trouble with the authorities at home and abroad.
Wilders -- nicknamed Mozart for his platinum-dyed mop of hair -- is awaiting trial for hate speech after calling Islam a fascist religion and likening the Koran to Hitler`s Mein Kampf. Related article: Wilders shock to the Dutch political system.
His anti-Islam film Fitna, a 17-minute commentary featuring shocking imagery of attacks on New York in 2001 and Madrid in 2004 combined with quotes from the Koran, has drawn outrage in a series of Muslim countries.
He was also barred from entering Britain last year to stop him spreading "hatred and violent messages.".
After his party`s success in Almere, Wilders told Muslims in the city that they had nothing to fear "as long as they obey the law".
But Kadriye Kacar, a computer sciences student who was born in the Netherlands and lives in Almere, said she felt stigmatised by the result.
"We can feel the change already, people are looking at us in a new way today as if they are thinking: `We won and you are leaving`," said the 35-year-old.
"I don`t wear a headscarf normally, but I have decided to start doing so now out of protest. Other people in my community are planning to do the same; we will protest until Wilders is gone."
The results of Wednesday`s elections represented a setback for both of the largest parties.
The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party of outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende won around 15 percent of votes cast, a drop of around two percentage points from its last showing in 2006.
The Labour Party PvdA, the strongest party in the last round of municipal polls in 2006 with 23.45 percent of the vote, now stood at about 16 percent.
The CDA and PvdA had been in a national coalition until January 20, when then finance minister and vice premier Wouter Bos withdrew his party in a spat over extending the Netherlands` military presence in Afghanistan.
Balkenende now leads an interim government until national elections which were brought forward to June 9.
Some 12 million Dutch out of a total population of 16.5 million were registered to vote in Wednesday`s elections.