AMSTERDAM/THE HAGUE - Dutch anti-Islamist leader Geert Wilders scored major gains in local authority polls on Thursday, making him a serious challenger for power in a June national election, preliminary results showed.
In the first test of public opinion since the collapse of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's coalition government last month, Wilders's Freedom Party (PVV) led in the city of Almere and was second in The Hague.
The results came on top of an opinion poll showing that the PVV, which campaigns against Muslim immigration as its main platform, would win the most seats -- 27 in the 150-member Dutch parliament -- in the June 9 election.
That would make it tough for Balkenende's Christian Democrats, projected to win one seat less, to forge a strong coalition without Wilders. Months of talks between parties, and the resulting policy vacuum, could threaten a fragile economic recovery and cast doubt on the scope of planned budget cuts.
The popularity of Wilders, who compares Islam to fascism and the Koran to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, has dented the image of the Netherlands as a country that has often portrayed itself in the past as a bastion of tolerance.
The PVV has been pitching its policies to a nation of 16 million that is turning increasingly inward as the economy struggles and social tensions rise. There are nearly 1 million Muslims in the Netherlands.
The leftist elite still believes in multi-culturalism, coddling criminals, a European super-state and high taxes, Wilders told cheering supporters at a rally in Almere after polling ended on Wednesday.
But the rest of the Netherlands thinks differently. That silent majority now has a voice, he said.
Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Vrije University in Amsterdam, said: You can see there's a lot of discontent in the electorate. Clearly Wilders is going to use these results as a stepping stone for national elections.
Balkenende, now heading a caretaker government, saw his coalition collapse on Feb. 20 after his centre-right Christian Democrats failed to persuade their Labour Party partners to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Afghanistan.
He has said the nearly 2,000 Dutch troops serving with NATO in Afghanistan were now likely to withdraw this year as planned.
The collapse was the fourth for a cabinet led by Balkenende in eight years.
In Almere, the PVV won 21 percent of the vote to Labour's 18 percent, the preliminary results showed. In The Hague, the PVV had 8 seats -- second to Labour with 10 seats. Experts put turnout in the local elections at 56 percent.
Labour, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, appeared to have benefited from its stance over Afghanistan.
The Labour Party is back, Bos told supporters. We were declared dead and buried, but with our struggle, humility and ideals we have come back.
Wilders, who has faced death threats, was under tight security at his rally on Wednesday.
People had to pass through metal detectors and security officers patted everyone down for concealed weapons.
There are many Muslims who want to take part in the community, but there is a percentage who want to make problems, said bus driver Theo Verstappen, 53.
Those who make problems are not being dealt with properly. It's not too much to ask that people who come here share our values.
(Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz, Gilbert Kreijger and Harro ten Wolde)