A test of man or message

Election: Pim Fortuyn's flamboyance and straight talk won fans. Despite his murder, his far-right party is expected to do well.

May 14, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Pim Fortuyn was not merely the leader of a far-right political party in the Netherlands before he was assassinated last week. He was a political rock star, a gay man who was open about his sexuality and a public figure who enjoyed the flamboyant gesture.

("I will borrow that handbag from Margaret Thatcher, bang it on the table, and say, `I want my money back!'" he once replied famously to a question about bloated government.)

He was a spaniel-loving eccentric who favored glittery clubs, chauffeur-driven luxury cars and suits as sharp as his rhetoric. He drew adoring crowds of autograph-seekers.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether the considerable number of Dutch who intended to vote for him, and still might, were attracted to the message or the man.

Judging from descriptions of his style and reaction to his politics described by the European media, it was probably a combination of the two.

The Netherlands will hold its election tomorrow, as scheduled, with a heavy turnout expected. At least one recent poll indicates that Fortuyn's party, called Pim Fortuyn's List, is poised to take second place.

That is not a bad finish in a country such as the Netherlands, where coalition governments rule and even a third-place finish can propel a party into the government.

While raw vote numbers are objective, the meaning behind them is open to interpretation, and already pundits in the Netherlands and elsewhere are debating what the vote might mean.

A strong showing by Fortuyn's party, some argue, could be merely a sympathy vote, more a reflection of the hearts of the Dutch than their heads.

But there is no question that Fortuyn succeeded in honing an anti-immigration stance different from that of other European right-wing political parties. Likewise, there is no question that his message resonated with large numbers; even before his death, he was projected to garner about 20 percent of the vote.

In the Netherlands, where permissiveness is a cornerstone of the culture, Fortuyn did not take the blustery and unbending approach of Austria's Jorg Haider or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, who advocated expelling immigrants from the country.

He did not, as Haider and Le Pen did, utter hateful, anti-Semitic views. Indeed, Fortuyn bristled at comparison to both.

Instead, his anti-immigrant message, squarely aimed at Muslims, was expressed as a policy promoting tolerance. Only by restricting the borders, he argued, could the Netherlands help immigrants already in the country to assimilate.

Further, he argued, Muslims, being intolerant of gays, oppressive of women, and overly reliant on religion, were diluting the Dutch culture. He asked how a country built on tolerance could tolerate the threat he perceived from conservative Islam. (Not incidentally, he made great political value of a Muslim religious leader's comparison of homosexuals to pigs.)

If strict interpretation of Islam was not reason enough to prevent more Muslims from coming in, Fortuyn stated publicly what others were thinking: Muslims, he said, were responsible for the country's increased crime. Unlike Haider and Le Pen, Fortuyn did not propose expelling immigrants or halting their admission. He sought instead to slow immigration, to about 10,000 a year.

Those views make comparisons to people like Haider (who has openly admired Hitler's "abilities") and Le Pen (who called the Holocaust a "detail of history"), a bit far-fetched, at least on one hand.

But on another, the spectacle of skinheads rioting in The Hague on the night of Fortuyn's death should not have been unexpected; emblems of right-wing intolerance, they protested not because he was in sync with their political views but because his were the closest to theirs that any (suddenly) mainstream politician had advocated.

Whether he was politically calculating or espousing his own beliefs, the debate over Fortuyn - the man and the message - has not died with him but only intensified.

The press on Fortuyn

Here are excerpts from reports around Europe:

"Mr. Fortuyn, the bane of the political establishment, succeeded in reaching a large group of voters with his populist rhetoric.

"Immigration policy, health care, education, public safety and government. These are the issues that, according to opinion polls, will determine the voting behavior. ...

"Mr. Fortuyn gave the dissatisfaction among voters in the Netherlands a voice."

- Cees Banning, NRC Handelsblad (Rotterdam, Netherlands)

"The list of Fortuyn's least-attractive characteristics were clear: populism, recurring bursts of demagoguery, manipulation, excess, and frequent signs of instability. The more admirable side centered on massive contempt for the political correctness of Europe's governing elites, and an epiphany-like insight into what was uncomfortably on the minds of a lot of Dutch people raised in one of the world's great traditions of democracy and tolerance."

- John Vinocur, International Herald Tribune

"He had no time for neo-Nazis, welcomed nonwhites to his party (although he argued that Holland could absorb no more immigrants) and loudly attacked Islam for its intolerance to gays. But he was part of the rebellion against the consensus politics that dominate so many European states, a revolt against regimes that use the language of political correctness ... to prevent real discussion of their own power-brokering and corruption."

- Neal Ascherson, The Observer (London)

"If it had not been for the martyrdom of `Le Pim' he, too, would surely have been ground down - in government or even in parliamentary opposition - by the tedium of conventional politics. But the reasons for his rise would have remained. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, our post-political, fractured societies crave easy answers, immediate action and, above all, the appeal of the colorful personality. Not the gray, dull and reasonable men of the post-war compact."

- John Kampfner, New Statesman (United Kingdom)

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