Netherlands shaken by assassination

Right-wing leader's killing a blow to its self-image as tolerant, safe nation

May 08, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands -- Outside the austere brick house where slain right-wing political leader Pim Fortuyn lived, thousands of grief-stricken citizens piled their flowers and cards yesterday beneath a light post adorned with a handmade sign: "It's a bloody shame."

They came to honor the life of a fiery populist they had only recently come to know and to reflect on the troubled times facing their country.

"He woke us up," said Brenda Reimerink, 21, dressed in black, carrying roses. "He said things everyone else believed. He gave us a kick in the pants."

Fortuyn, 54, was a political outsider, a one-time Marxist sociology professor turned leader of a formidable right-wing movement. He was charismatic, a tough talker who shaved his head, wore fine suits and never hid his homosexuality.

His killing Monday, nine days before parliamentary elections, was the first assassination here in modern times and a blow to the Netherlands' self-image as a safe, tolerant society.

Bluntly proposing to cut off immigration, tighten the country's borders and reduce the size of government, Fortuyn was a divisive, potent force with as many critics as supporters. Although some observers likened him to French right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, Fortuyn was a more complex figure who bridled at suggestions he had anything in common with Le Pen or another far-right demagogue, Austria's Joerg Haider.

More than 16,000 people signed books of condolence yesterday, and about 10,000 marched last night through the city's streets.

"I adored him," said Reimerink, who works at Rotterdam's port. "But the government and the media made a demon of him."

"A dark shadow has fallen over the Netherlands," Prime Minister Wim Kok told the parliament after it observed one minute of silence. After a day's hesitation, he announced that elections for 150 seats in parliament would take place as scheduled May 15, a decision endorsed by Fortuyn's party, called Fortuyn's List.

Authorities said a 32-year old Dutchman would appear today in a court in Amsterdam. The man was apprehended at a gas station near the site where Fortuyn was killed in Hilversum, about 12 miles southeast of Amsterdam . Dutch media reported that police found ammunition at the man's home that matched shell casings gathered at the crime scene.

Fortuyn's corpse became a chilling, disturbing front-page image in the nation's newspapers. "The Netherlands has lost its innocence," said the national daily Volkskrant; the Telegraaf said "tolerance has been hit at its core."

Touchy issues

Fortuyn had gained attention by arguing what no other prominent politicians dared to say -- that too many immigrants had come to the Netherlands and that its borders should be closed. He argued, too, that the West and Islam were on a collision course.

And people responded.

Polls forecast that his party was poised to gain up to 20 percent of the vote and a place in government. Local elections here in March saw Fortuyn and his allies gain one in three votes.

But the country's turn to the right wasn't the only issue clouding the political landscape.

Last month, the government resigned because of a devastating report about the military's conduct in Bosnia in 1995, when Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica surrendered thousands of Bosnian Muslims to Bosnian Serb forces. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were then killed. By resigning en masse, though, the cabinet ensured that no individuals accepted responsibility for the massacre -- an all too common event in a society where the mainstream parties seek to rule by consensus.

Re-thinking self-image

Fortuyn's killing might force the Dutch to reassess their country.

"They saw themselves as a well-run, well-functioning, tolerant country without a far right, without political violence," said Galen Irwin, an American-born political scientist at Leiden University. "These kinds of assumptions have been totally shaken. Their whole picture of themselves is shaken."

"These kinds of things couldn't happen in this nice little country. These are things that happen in South America or Africa, not in The Netherlands."

Rise alarms some

Fortuyn's rise to prominence clearly troubled the country.

Hariy Daemen, a political scientist at Erasmus University, said Fortuyn was considered dangerous because he threatened the status quo and discussed emotive issues like immigration: "He was a challenge and a threat to democratic stability. His party was not seen as able to govern. To attract so many voters and not be able to govern was a danger to the nation."

But to his true believers, Fortuyn was a force for change and his killing an outrage.

"It was a liquidation," said Louise Martens, 53.

"The killing shows no one is safe," said Martens' friend, Micky Cots Proos. "I'm afraid in my own country."

`Said what he meant'

Over and over, Fortuyn's supporters said he voiced concerns long suppressed by the Dutch.

"This man said what he meant and said what he thought," said Rick Suers, 23, a car salesman. "He was right on immigration."

"He was not a racist, and everyone knew that," said Jacqueline Volders, 21, a travel agent.

San Moekti, 33, a physician whose family moved to the Netherlands from Indonesia, said Fortuyn and his supporters wanted immigrants to integrate into society -- and that Fortuyn was not a racist.

"To the outside world Holland seems like a very nice country to live in, without a lot of problems," he said. "But that is not the truth. That is why a man like Fortuyn grew so fast politically: because his ideas were growing beneath the surface."

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