ALMERE // Outside a city hall in the heart of the Netherlands, Ayse Bayrak de Jager's response to the quickening march of the Dutch far right took the form of a short, dignified vigil. As people entered and left the building, she raised a simple poster bearing the message: "My headscarf, my freedom." Ms de Jager, a Dutchwoman who converted to Islam 25 years ago, drew comfort from the smiles and thumbs-up from passers-by.
But she knows that among the 187,000 inhabitants of Almere, 30 minutes by rail east of Amsterdam, are plenty who see her as at best a problem, at worst a threat. This week, in a development that sent shudders down the spines of mainstream politicians, Almere became the first city to choose Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom (PVV) as its majority political force, with 21.6 per cent of the vote. The PVV - denounced by socialists as a "menace to society" - also did well in The Hague, the seat of government, to become the second largest municipal party. It is tipped in opinion polls to emerge from the forthcoming general election in June as the largest or second largest party.
As the projected local elections results were announced, it was difficult to escape images of Mr Wilders, a distinctive figure with his boyish features and swept-back, platinum-dyed hair, in triumphant mood. "The national campaign begins today in Almere and The Hague, tomorrow in the Netherlands," Mr Wilders said of his party's advances in the only cities where it had contested seats. "On June 9, we will conquer the Netherlands."
Among Muslims and those who regard him as a fascist, there is deep concern that Mr Wilders, known chiefly for his anti-Islam polemic, could even become prime minister if he succeeded in persuading another party to work with him in coalition. He has likened the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf and faces prosecution for allegedly inciting hatred discrimination. Under one of his best-known policies, women would be banned from wearing headscarves in council offices.
"No one has the right to dress me," said Ms de Jager, 44, an education adviser. "I am a grown woman and should be left to make my own decisions. We are meant to be free in Holland and that should mean being free to choose my own religion and how I observe it. "Wilders has one agenda - attacking Muslims. If he talks about crime, it's about Muslims as the problem even though Muslims are just as likely as anyone to be its victims."
Not too much should be read into the absence of hostility towards Ms de Jager's protest. Although most people approached randomly by The National in Almere presented themselves as anti-Wilders, the fact remains that one elector in five who voted in the city on Wednesday backed his party. "The PVV is more or less a fascist party," said Henry Koopman, 65, a pensioner. "As with the far right parties of the UK and elsewhere, people are a little ashamed to say openly they support it. Wilders appeals to emotions most Dutch people have not wanted to acknowledge since the Second World War."
Almere is a new town built on reclaimed land; its first house was not constructed until 1976. Within easy commuting distance of Amsterdam, it was chosen by many as a tranquil alternative to the capital. But with an influx of immigrants from Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, the Dutch-speaking South American republic of Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean, it is beginning to experience social tension. Even residents who reject the far right describe their fear of crime and speak of violence between different ethnic groups, though the council stresses that unemployment and crime rates are lower than national averages. Almere's Muslim community is put at about five per cent.
"The PVV wants to bring in police commandos to deal with criminals," said Noeschka Besselink, 28, who works in recruitment. "You could be having an argument with your boyfriend, and the commandos misinterpret it and shoot you in the knees." Ms Besselink said she might even consider moving from Almere to avoid being in a city where the main political party was one she loathed. "I tell you this: the day they ban the burqa, I will wear it myself as an expression of freedom."
Rick Lemmen, 20, a student of video game design, said his parents voted for the PVV, though he did not. "I think it was mostly because Wilders is something new. But there is also a feeling that when people come to our country they should adapt to our values as we are expected to do in their countries." The same theme was addressed by Leo van de Akkerm 37, a sports teacher, who has not ruled out voting for the party in June though he wants to know more about its national manifesto. "Our queen took off her shoes when she visited a mosque so it is not so wrong to ask a Muslim lady to remove her head dress."
The Dutch coalition government of the Christian Democrats and Labour collapsed last month in a dispute over whether the Netherlands should keep a reduced military presence in Afghanistan. When the general election is held three months from now, the eyes of conventional parties in other European countries with large Muslim populations and rising support for populist right-wing options will be fixed on the outcome.
Regardless of other issues Mr Wilders might address if he took or shared power, it is his anti-Islamic posturing that sets him apart. At an election rally in Almere, he taunted socialists by saying that if any were present, he would have his speech translated for them into Arabic. Speaking in deliberately broken English, he summed up the socialist message to immigrants as: "You get nice benefits, we Holland pay everything. In other words: bring over your whole family, because money grows on trees here."
The worry for moderate politicians is that his blunt approach - added to widespread disaffection with government - is clearly winning converts. "I voted for them because I wanted to give them a chance," said Cor Veerhuis, an IT manager who now works as a taxi driver. "Wilders has a big mouth; now let's see how he puts his words into action." @Email:email@example.com