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The Netherlands: The Ghost Of Pim Fortuyn Haunts Dutch Elections

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Dutch parliamentary elections mark a new upset in Western European political life. Results show the newly formed anti-immigrant party of murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn finished second in yesterday's voting. Prime Minister Wim Kok's Labor Party saw its number of seats halved. It appears that voters in the European Union are warning mainstream parties that their concerns, such as crime and immigration, are not being addressed.

Prague, 16 May 2002 (RE/RL) -- In Shakespeare's drama "Julius Caesar," Caesar himself hardly appears. He is murdered by plotters early in the play. But even in death, his spirit continues to exercise a dominating influence over events.

So it is with murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. His rightist List Party scored second place in yesterday's parliamentary elections in the Netherlands -- a spectacular showing for a party formed only a few months ago and left leaderless just days ahead of the election.

Only the main conservative opposition party, the Christian Democrats, gained more seats than List, while Prime Minister Wim Kok's center-left coalition, led by his Labor Party, was soundly routed.

The Christian Democrats have already started making contacts in the lengthy process of forming a ruling coalition, and it's possible that List might find itself in government. As jubilant List spokesman Mat Herben put it: "For us, this is a splendid result, because we got the mandate from the Dutch voters -- 26 seats in parliament -- which is really incredible. If you bear in mind that we have lost our leader.... But we say he may be dead, but his ideas are still very vivid among us and the population."

What accounts for the victory by List? Analysts are united in saying that Fortuyn, though strongly anti-immigration, is not in the same extreme rightist camp as, for instance, France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. A researcher at the Bonn-based Centre for European Integration Studies, Stefan Marteel, said Fortuyn tapped into a feeling in his country that long-established political parties were setting the agenda and excluding the common man and his worries.

"The problem in Holland was the culture of 'political correctness,' which is something the people got bored with. And that is probably a trend which has been going on for some years, and Fortuyn was the man who knew how to express those feelings," Marteel said.

Marteel said Fortuyn was really seeking answers to ordinary people's problems, unlike hard-core extremists, whom he characterizes as merely exploiting situations to gain votes. But discontent with the arrogant political elites cannot explain fully why Fortuyn and List gained such strong support.

Analysts point to the growing public concern in Western Europe with crime, with uncontrolled immigration, and with economic trends like globalization, which is demanding economic restructuring.

As Marteel put it: "Always when there is a change of course, there are always people who think they are unable to go with it, to live with the change, and alter their voting patterns. And the votes, of course, go to parties which put themselves outside the political system."

Analysts say the growing reality of a globalized world where the old borders and national institutions are eroded or done away with altogether is making people feel insecure. The economic restructuring thought to be necessary to keep Europe competitive in a globalized world is also removing the feeling of safety -- as German analyst Adrian Ottnad put it -- that people used to have. This means there is a tendency to vote more radically, either on the right or the left.

"If you look, for example, at the eastern German states, at Saxony-Anhalt, to give an example, you will find that the PDS -- the former Communist Party -- has a strong position, using nearly the same answers as some of the right-wing parties do," Ottnad said.

Mainstream parties, and not only in the Netherlands, have been slow to come to terms with popular fears and to address them in honest ways. Ottnad, of the Institute for Economy and Society, said that if they want to stem the tide of votes to the radical fringe, the big parties must start telling the truth. He takes an example from his native Germany.

"All the parties are announcing they want to bring down the public spending ratio to the GDP [gross domestic product] to a maximum of 40 percent of GDP, and the Liberals want to bring it down to 35 percent -- things like this. But nobody tells the people what this means. I am convinced we have to go this way, but it is not sufficient just to say it," Ottnad said.

What it means, Ottnad said, is greatly reduced expenditures by the state in such areas as health and pensions -- and the public needs to know this.

Back to the situation in the Netherlands, where coalition building for the next government is already under way, with the List Party being something of a mystery to the established parties.

Christian Democrat leader Jan Peter Balkenende said: "I think that the voters have given a clear signal. The group of Pim Fortuyn has now 26 seats. Only the question is, 'Will they be a stable force in Dutch politics?' That means that we will have to go to the negotiations at this moment and that will be difficult, I think." Given the usual Dutch time frames, the negotiations could drag on for months.

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