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Assassinated Dutch Politician Not Typical Right-Winger - 2002-05-07

The assassination Monday of maverick right-wing Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn has deeply shocked the Netherlands, a country that prides itself on a peaceful and egalitarian tradition. Mr. Fortuyn, though anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim, did not fit the pattern of other right-wing leaders in Europe and, in fact, tried to distance himself from them.

As mourners gathered in Rotterdam, Pim Fortuyn's hometown, to sign a condolence book at city hall, many expressed the feeling that it is not just one man who has died but also the illusion of the Netherlands as a model of social and political calm.

Karl Boonstra, holding his two-year-old son in his arms, says he cannot believe such a thing could happen in one of Europe's most tolerant societies. "It's very, very difficult to explain to a young boy of two-years-old that democracy is freedom. Why do people kill for it?" he asked.

Anneke Boerma was equally distressed that political violence had reared its head in the Netherlands. "To murder a person like's impossible. It's not normal," she concluded. "It's not Dutch."

"In The Hague, acting Prime Minister Wim Kok said it was a tragic day for the Netherlands and for Dutch democracy. After consulting with Pim Fortuyn's family and political allies, he decided that next week's general elections should go ahead. Mr. Kok told reporters that, despite Mr. Fortuyn's killing, normal political life should proceed and that politicians should not be intimidated.

"We all stressed the importance of being calm, respecting also the difficult situation for the family and for the political group of Pim Fortuyn," said Mr. Kok.

Mr. Fortuyn, a flamboyant, openly homosexual former sociology lecturer and magazine columnist, burst out of obscurity two months ago when his Fortuyn List won 17 out of 45 seats on the Rotterdam city council. Pollsters predicted that the group was on track toward obtaining up to 20 percent of the nationwide vote in the May 15 nationwide elections.

Pim Fortuyn was a skillful politician who played the media with relish. His outspokenness, his passion and his starkly anti-immigrant platform contrasted sharply with the styles of the well-meaning but colorless mainstream politicians who have long prided themselves on their pragmatic gift for consensus.

Mr. Fortuyn insisted that immigrants already living in the Netherlands - about ten percent of the population - should become Dutch and adopt Dutch ways. He never advocated expelling them. But he did draw the line at further immigration, saying the Netherlands should close its doors to newcomers, especially Muslims.

In a recently released book and in interviews, Mr. Fortuyn argued that Islam was a backward culture because it discriminated against women and gays like himself. "It is a backward culture," he maintained. "When you have discrimination of women, is that backward or is that forward?"

His supporters say Mr. Fortuyn articulated what many Dutch citizens think about immigration and its relationship to rising crime but have been unwilling to enunciate because of the prevailing political correctness. In a country where more than half of the prison population is of immigrant origin, Fortuyn List member Jimmy Jansen van Raay says people can at last say what they think about multiculturalism, thanks to Mr. Fortuyn.

"He made things speakable and discussible, which were in the taboo sphere until that time," said Mr. van Raay. "He worked through it by speaking about things everybody was thinking about, like security in the parks, and the tramways and the central [railroad] station, etc. And that was his great merit, but also his great danger."

And yet, there was more to Mr. Fortuyn's appeal than his stand against further immigration and his opposition to Muslims. Like French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, he represented a rebellion against a political establishment that is seen as dodging tough social issues. But unlike Mr. Le Pen and Austrian extreme rightist Jorg Haider, he was a champion of gay rights and the free market. And he rejected any comparison with the other two men, condemning their anti-Jewish remarks and proclaiming himself a defender of Israel.

Mr. Fortuyn may have a bigger effect on Dutch society in death than he did during his controversial political life. His message to a disillusioned segment of the Dutch electorate came at a time when many voters across Europe feel disoriented and not represented by traditional political parties. The Dutch are now debating what his murder will mean for the future of their multicultural society.