Early returns in Dutch local elections Wednesday showed an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party making big gains in a result seen as a possible foreshadowing of national elections in June. Wednesday’s voting in 394 cities in theory elects city councils to deal with matters such as parking fees and taxes on dog ownership. But with national elections slated for June 9, Dutch media and politicians are treating the event as a dress rehearsal.

The Freedom Party of prominent anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders was leading handily with a quarter of the votes counted in the medium-sized city of Almere, around 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Amsterdam. Voting was conducted with paper and pencil, and full results are not expected before Thursday morning.

Wilders has drawn comparisons with populists such as Jorg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. He is facing prosecution for allegedly inciting racial hatred with remarks that include describing the Qur’an a “fascist” book and calling for it to be banned. His relatively new party is only running in Almere and The Hague, where it is expected to finish second.

An opinion poll commissioned by state broadcaster NOS found that if national elections had been held Wednesday, the result would have been inconclusive. The country’s two largest parties, the conservative Christian Democrats and left-leaning Labor, both lost ground. They have sworn not to join forces again after Labor walked out of their coalition Cabinet last month over Dutch involvement in Afghanistan.

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

Immigration issues have dominated the Dutch domestic political landscape for a decade. Muslims make up about 6 per cent of the population, and Wilders says their presence threatens the Dutch way of life.

Political observes said that, with the Christian Democrats and Labor at odds, and other parties split equally between left and right, it may prove extremely difficult for either side to build a workable coalition. Most left-leaning parties have said flatly they will not work with Wilders, whose party is now the third-largest nationally according to the NOS poll.

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