Culture Shock

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One of the thousands of mourners who marched through Rotterdam

Something blacker than mere mourning descended over the Netherlands last week. The murder of populist politician Pim Fortuyn drove thousands of dazed citizens into the streets in shock, anger and a cataclysmic sense of loss that went beyond one life to encompass the nation itself. A man who just weeks earlier was hotly disputing comparisons with French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen seemed in death to have bizarrely taken on the luster of his avowed idol, John F. Kennedy. His new window on a harder-edged Dutch future, disturbing to some and promising to others, slammed shut before it ever really opened.

"He had the courage to speak out, and he was killed for his honesty," said Andrea van Es, who had placed her own bouquet on the pile in front of Fortuyn's house on a quiet square in Rotterdam. Many of the people shuffling through the streets of Rotterdam in a silent march last Tuesday, filing past his open casket in the city's cathedral on Thursday's Ascension holiday and lining the route of his cortege on Friday were moved not by his politics, but by the brutal violence that silenced him. "There was only a thin line between Pim Fortuyn and a racist," said Van Es' partner, Idries Mohamedajoeb, a bar manager of Indian extraction. "But he didn't have to die."

Fortuyn's meteoric rise in just nine months on an anti-immigration platform had dealt a telling blow to the pragmatic consensus seeking that has long defined Dutch politics. His murder appears to have destroyed it altogether, leaving the country without its moorings as it approaches the most emotional and uncertain election in its history this week. Polls before his death predicted that Fortuyn would attract about 17% of the vote, enough to make him a major player in forming a new government. He is widely expected to do much better than that as the martyred head of his electoral party. The question now is how the fractious collection of mostly neophyte politicians on his ticket will handle that bitter victory without him to lead them. The challenge is no less daunting for the established parties, confronted by an inchoate taste for change among an electorate keen to reject the politics of accommodation.

Fortuyn, 54, was a man for confrontation, not consensus. He wanted to re-establish Dutch border controls and let in refugees only from Britain, Denmark, France and Germany. He sought to dial back the generous disability scheme that supports the roughly 15% of Dutch workers who claim they can't work for medical reasons. At least a quarter of the state bureaucracy should be laid off, Fortuyn maintained, while at the same time the number of regional governments should be doubled and schools made smaller. A Fortuyn government would not only reintroduce the draft, but also mandate a special four-year army term for "young criminals." He opposed privatization of public utilities and wanted police to focus on, among other things, bicycle theft in the major cities.

Fortuyn had laid out some of that political smorgasbord last Monday afternoon at a Hilversum radio studio, where he also predicted he would live to the ripe age of 86. As he left the studio, a gunman approached him in the parking lot and fired five shots, hitting the candidate in the head, chest and neck. He died soon after.

Fortuyn's alleged assassin appears to be a political animal of a very different sort. Volkert van der Graaf, 32, who was arrested immediately after the shooting and arraigned on Wednesday, is an animal-rights activist and long-term member of an environmental group that legally challenges farmers who seek to expand their operations. A principled vegan who once told an interviewer he couldn't abide the cruelty of baiting a fishhook, Van der Graaf lived in the small town of Harderwijk with his wife and three-month-old baby. "He was not given to jokes or eccentricities," says Caroline Hoogendijk, a director of the Dutch Veganism Association who worked closely with Van der Graaf. Wien van den Brink, head of a farmer's activist group from nearby Putten op de Veluwe and a candidate on Fortuyn's list, was left unimpressed in his frequent dealings with Van der Graaf. "You had the impression that he lived in his own world and didn't expect anyone outside it to understand him," he says. "His biggest thrill must have been when the local paper called him a 'green Robin Hood.'"

Van der Graaf, who is expected to face a murder charge, has not cooperated with prosecutors, leaving his motive unclear. While farm policy was not a central issue for Fortuyn, he is reported to have once said he would lift a current ban on mink farming. Prosecutors on Friday said they had located the names of three other Fortuyn List candidates and maps of their neighborhoods in Van der Graaf's car, and were investigating a videotape that showed the suspect conferring with two others in a city where Fortuyn was speaking earlier on the day of his murder. They are also revisiting the unsolved 1996 murder in a town near Harderwijk of an environmental official found shot in the head. Whatever the details, many Fortuyn supporters contend that by demonizing Fortuyn, established politicians are somehow responsible for fueling the murderous intent of his assassin.

In a country where the Prime Minister, Wim Kok, famously likes to ride a bike to work, Fortuyn's flamboyance was a political statement in itself. He traveled in a Daimler with a fender flag bearing the family crest, employed a butler named Herman, wore tailored Italian suits and oversized ties, and reveled in his homosexuality. "He was like a jester, the one who holds up a mirror to the politicians and says, 'Look, you're ugly,'" notes Arthur Ringeling, a political scientist at Rotterdam's Erasmus University. Raised in a middle-class Catholic family, Fortuyn was a nominal Marxist during his university studies but later joined the Labor Party. With a doctorate in sociology, he became a professor at Erasmus in 1990. Though he was popular with his students, a university committee judged his scholarly efforts inadequate, and he resigned in 1995. By then he already had a successful political consulting firm, as well as a weekly column for the Dutch newsmagazine Elsevier.

Fortuyn jumped to electoral politics only last summer, when he started consultations with a new grassroots party called Livable Netherlands, and he was voted to the top spot on its electoral list last November. But the party threw him out in February after he told an interviewer he considered Islam a "backward culture" and advocated the repeal of the first article of the Dutch constitution, which forbids discrimination on religious or racial grounds. He quickly formed his own party, which ran away with 35% of the March 6 vote for the Rotterdam city council.

It is no easy task to tease out how much of Fortuyn's appeal stemmed from his larger-than-life personality and how much from his right-wing program. "He made the other politicians look like robots," concedes Tip Ho Ong, who works for the Rotterdam Antidiscrimination Action Council. Fortuyn seemed to make his own rules: an earlier Dutch extreme-right politician, Hans Janmaat, known for his "Full is full" slogan, was fined in 1994 for using anti-immigration language. Fortuyn said the same thing with impunity.

That in itself is an indication, perhaps, of how the Netherlands has changed. The multicultural approach has given way to the idea of integrating minorities, but it hasn't happened fast enough to counter the lure of a figure like Fortuyn. First- and second-generation foreign-born amount to about 17% of the Dutch population, roughly the same as in other West European countries and the U.S., says Erasmus migration expert Han Entzinger. In Rotterdam itself, the figure rises to 45%, and in some neighborhoods — and many schools — it is much higher. To promote integration, the Netherlands in 1998 began requiring new immigrants to take mandatory Dutch lessons. As asylum seekers choose other destinations, their annual rate of entry to the Netherlands has dropped from 50,000 in the mid-1990s to about 33,000 last year. Nevertheless, says Entzinger, "the sheer numbers have changed things. Integration is working, but so slowly people can't see it, and they're uneasy — even some immigrants themselves."

There's no question that unease was a major factor in Fortuyn's rise. "My grandmother was in the Dutch resistance during the war, and she compares Fortuyn with Hitler," says Michel van Dyke, 24. "I say you can't compare the Dutch with the Germans. Fortuyn just said what a lot of people thought: that foreigners are causing a lot of problems in the Netherlands."

At the same time, Fortuyn's movement profits from an electorate fed up with the sense of stasis in the outgoing left-right coalition. Prime Minister Kok, who is not running for re-election, was taunted by bystanders at Fortuyn's funeral on Friday and chose to leave the cathedral by a back door. "The politicians are always compromising, never solving anything," says Peter Ver A, 42, who owns a Rotterdam "coffee shop" where customers can smoke hashish and marijuana. "The usual politicians just didn't see the problem of crime. People want everybody to follow the rules." Dutch rules, that is.

Without its founder, Fortuyn's List could quickly turn out to manifest many of the foibles of other political parties. Fortuyn still heads it, but beneath his now hallowed name a struggle for power is likely. No. 2 on the list, Joao Varela, whose parents immigrated from Cape Verde, is considered too young at 27 to lead the party in parliament. Winny de Jong, 43, a consumer advocate for a Dutch supermarket trade association, has the support of many party leaders, but others seem ready to back Mat Herben, 49, a journalist who, as he says, "wrote Pim's speeches and listened to so many interviews that I can dream his response to anything."

Whatever their success, Fortuyn's survivors will almost certainly have to face a fundamental fact of Dutch politics: governments are coalitions formed by consensus, not confrontation. And they will face the new and difficult task, as one leading government politician puts it, "of solving problems, not just pointing them out." The

established parties are chastened by Fortuyn's signal success and vow to draw lessons. Says Dick Benschop, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs from Kok's Labor Party: "We'll see less focus on technocratic control and more on political debate." But they lack the personalities to slake the newly awakened Dutch thirst for flamboyance, verve and straight talking that is Pim Fortuyn's best legacy. Pragmatism demands patience, and Dutch voters seem to be running short on that.