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The Fortuyn embarrassment for Europe

The Fortuyn embarrassment for Europe

Author: Folkert Jensma
Publication: International Herald Tribune, UK
Date: May 15, 2002

The death of Pim Fortuyn, assassinated on May 6 as he campaigned for prime minister, leaves the Netherlands- in fact, all of Europe-with many uncomfortable questions.

The most serious, of course is how someone could be killed for his political beliefs. The Netherlands had long though itself beyond such violence.

Fortuyn was a former sociology professor who campaigned as a populist and said he hoped that this Wednesday's elections would make him the nations first gay prime minister, had little patience was the notion that his popularity was another sing that "right-wing extremism" is on the rise throughout Europe.

Do Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in France, Jorg Hailer's in Austria and Silvio Berlusconi's in Italy signal a trends? Not entirely.

Fortuyn's popularity was undeniable. He won the local elections in Rotterdam, the Netherlands's second largest city, two months ago, and before his death his party was expected to win up to 20 per cent of the vote this Wednesday. But his appeal was particularly Dutch, and his politics were not easily categorized. His views were a curious mixture of right, center and left.

Most famously, he said the Netherlands was "full up" and sho0uld not accept any more immigrants. Yet he favored reform of the country's social service bureaucracy and electoral system, and he was a vocal champion of women's rights. He was also a strong supporter of Israel.

Fortuyn managed to express all these views in a clear and convincing manner. He had a gift for Americanstyle sound-bite politics and combined charisma with personal charm. If his views were contradictory, as they quite often were, he simply evaded critics by instantly moderating or clarifying his statements. He had a talent for rhetoric and looked great on television.

In short, Fortuyn was everything Dutch politicians are not famous for. He was not dull, he didn't use jargon and he was openly ambitious.

Dutch politicians are generally moderate, in style and substance, working to build coalitions. Every opponent is considered a future
partner and thus not to be insulated. The political jargon produced by this system encourages a growing number of votes to tune out.

Prime Minister Wim KOK further anesthetized Dutch political debate in 19 by bringing the left-wing Social Democrats and right-wing conservatives together in a grand coalition that lasted eight years. Kok policies were built on their assumption that political difference could be put on hold.

It was a sign of the times. Communism had evaporated, Europe was unifying and liberalization was on everyone's mind. National politicians inevitably became traveling negotiators with Brussels, home of the European central Bank, New York home of the United Nations and Washington.

Fortuyn single-handedly energized and frequently inflamed this polite debate. He pronounced his opinions on just about any subject, carefully enlisting every concern and worry of the electorate. He captured the public's anxiety about problems from traffic jams to hospital waiting lists to crowded schools, all in a relaxed and pleasant manner.

He thought Islamic culture "backward" and directly linked the high proportion of immigrants in the big cities to "all our problems in health care, law and order and education."This was not true of course- but not country has come to realise.

He was sharply criticized by other politicians but drew support from those in the population who felt, as he did, that many of the issues he raised were unaddressed by the political establishment. There he did not have a point.

Fortuyn managed to mobilize large groups in the electorate who usually stayed home during elections but now recognized their own voice in his. These were low income voters in densely populated neighborhoods that had changed the most because of immigration.

Typical Fortuyn voters no longer feel at home in their own towns. The most popular name for baby boys in Amsterdam these days in Muhammed. It used to be Jan.

Chartering to this audience, Fortuyn favored policies like obligatory language courses and national laws against Islamic fundamentalists who discriminated against women and gays.

Few politicians dared to disagree openly with Fortuyn on theme issues. Infact, some felt that their agenda was begins hijacked. They just wished that Fortuyn had mentioned that illegal immigration is a European problem that requires a European solution-which means traveling and negotiating not less.

Although some of his wilder statements would have pleased Le Pen, Fortuyn wax not considered a "right-wing extremist" by moist Dutch voters. He saw himself as a reformer's politics from within, in the mold of Bill Clinton.

His party, the List Pim Fortuyn recruited people from business, government, journalism and medicine to serve as parliamentary candidates.

Now these candidates face an uncertain future. They have decided to defer naming a new party leader until after the elections. They presented this decision as a tribute to Fortuyn, but it masks an uncomfortable truth: without him, there is no List Pim Fortuyn.

Can his party survive without him? The most recent polls project it winning 28 of 150 seats in Wedensday's elections up from 26 in a poll taken before Fortuyn death. But no one really knows. Some feel that voters will have second thoughts about casting their ballots in favor of a party whose leader in unknown.

Nevertheless, some voters will undoubtedly support a leaderless party in the hopes that it will continue Fortuyn's agenda. His assassination has enlarged the Shadow he cast the Dutch political landscape.

It is not yet clear whether his political message will find a home in other parts of Europe as well.

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