ANALYSIS-Wilders taps Dutch discontent, bares political cracks

* Concern over Islam, globalisation drive Wilders' support

* Focus on tolerance hid concerns over immigration

* Wilders' party could top snap election-poll

AMSTERDAM, March 5 (Reuters) - After scoring gains in local elections, Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders is now primed to make waves in a national poll in June by tapping into discontent over Islam and globalisation.

In the first test of public opinion since the collapse of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's coalition government last month, Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) became the largest party in the city of Almere and came second in The Hague on Wednesday.

Drawing strength from a savvy public relations machine and a populist anti-immigration stance that plays well with part of the electorate, Wilders also represents a vote against the political elite, political experts say.

"He thrives on discontent in society and multiculturalism and he has targeted Islam," said Nico Landman, an associate professor in Islamic studies at Utrecht University.

Muslims now make up about 6 percent, or 1 million of the 16 million population of the Netherlands.

Hit by the slowdown in global trade after two decades of strong growth and low unemployment, the stagnating economy has heightened concerns over religious freedom, immigrant unemployment and crime.

Gay populist Pim Fortuyn was the first to tap into those concerns before he was gunned down by an environmentalist in 2002. Two years later, a Moroccan-Dutch man killed filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh, providing another flashpoint.

Recent governments have tightened immigration laws and pushed to integrate immigrants better, introducing compulsory Dutch language and society lessons.

But such policy changes take time to produce results and critics say governments in the 1980s failed to see the downside of immigration, blinded by multiculturalist policies.

"It's not too much to ask that people who come here to share our values," said Theo Verstappen, 53, a bus driver from Gouda.

The debate may surprise outsiders used to seeing the Netherland's open policies on drugs and prostitution as totems of a liberal national psyche.

But Dutch tolerance has always had its limits, said Meindert Fennema, a professor in political theory at Amsterdam University.


It is against this background that Wilders has steered his Freedom Party to the top of the polls, recent survey suggesting his outfit could become the largest party in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament. [ID:nLDE61R08D]

Muslim leaders have struggled to make headway against the consummate communicator who has become adept at avoiding direct confrontation.

"He attracts a lot of public attention by using statements in parliament and outside parliament which get a lot of media coverage, but when he is invited to an open debate he can't control, he simply refuses the invitation," Utrecht University's Landman said.

But community leaders concede they too must do more.

"We need to give an opposing voice and that's what we want to keep doing and we haven't done that enough," said Henny Kreeft, chairman of the Dutch Muslim Party chairman.

"Wilders creates fear and reacts to the Islamisation of the Netherlands, but there is no Islamisation of the Netherlands."

Further helping Wilders is a changing political dynamic, a move away from a left-right divide to a split between traditional and newer parties such as Freedom, said Tilburg University political science professor Marcel Boogers.

Voters are also shedding party affiliations and now switch easily, leading to wide vote swings and a fragmented political scene with no clear majority.

Concerns about globalisation have turned Dutch voters inwards and away greater involvement in NATO and international affairs, a trend which has also worked in Wilders' favour.

The government has run a pro-Europe policy in recent years but Boogers said recent administrations have failed to show how workers and the elderly benefit.

Wilders has campaigned against EU influence in Dutch laws, though little is known of his economic policies besides his opposition to raising the retirement age and higher taxes. He has also called for massive cuts to foreign aid.

"Many people fear globalisation and a growing European Union and that's why they vote for Wilders," Boogers said.

Unlike large companies or international entrepreneurs who need skilled expats, small company owners or tradesman are concerned globalisation and open borders mean cheap labour inflows will threaten job security.

Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, said Wilders has seized on these concerns by becoming increasingly an economic protectionist to boost his electoral support.

If Freedom does as well as expected in the June polls, one of the coalitions considered possible after the national election is a combination of the Christian Democrats, Liberal VVD and the Freedom Party, but they probably will not have a majority which means they will need a fourth party.

The Labour party -- one of the country's largest -- has called for a boycott of Wilders but will have its own problems forming a coalition. So months of political deadlock are likely no matter what the result. (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Jon Boyle)