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Dutch Vote In Conservatives, Right-wing Parties - 2002-05-15

Voting has ended in the Netherlands, where the Dutch have dumped their center-left coalition and moved to the right. A big winner in Wednesday's elections is the party of slain far-right politician Pim Fortuyn. Almost 80 percent of eligible Dutch voters went to the polls.

Outgoing Prime Minister Wim Kok called the day's results an "incredible blow," a "painful personal and political defeat."

His once leading labor party suffered its worst loss since World War I. Things went well in the Netherlands, said the popular prime minister, who oversaw eight years of economic prosperity. But clearly not well enough.

That led the party's leader, Ad Melkert, to announce his resignation. A cold wind is blowing through Europe he said, noting that this is not the finest hour for social democrats. But Mr. Melkert says the party must keep working for justice and equal opportunity and against the dividing forces in society, a veiled reference to the party of slain right-wing candidate Pim Fortuyn.

His tough-on-crime, anti-immigrant, the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) party, came in second with 26 seats in the election behind the Christian Democrats (CDA) which gained 43 seats so far. But in major cities like The Hague and his home city of Rotterdam, the LPF won the most seats. Only in the capital Amsterdam and the city of Utrecht did Labor maintain its lead.

At a post-election party in an upscale hotel in The Hague, Fortuyn supporters savored a bittersweet victory. Indeed his shooting death just over a week ago weighed heavily on this election.

"Tonight we feel like orphans," said LPF party spokesman Mat Herben, "Pim wasn't right or left, but the doctor who made the good diagnosis of what's wrong in Dutch society."

Mr. Herben said the voters gave their answer to the murderer at the ballot box. And their undeniable answer is a shift to the right, with the previous opposition party, the conservative Christian Democrats, winning a clear victory. Its head, Jan Peter Balkenende, could be the next prime minister. Dutch people want a different type of politics, he said, both in content and in style.

His party will lay its ideals on the table and start negotiations for a speedy formation of the government. But Mr. Balkenende wouldn't comment on specific coalition partners yet, saying instead that respect and responsibility will be key words for the future.

All party leaders will meet Thursday with the Dutch Queen Beatrix, who will appoint someone to form the next coalition government. That process could take months, but in the end, the Dutch political landscape will no doubt look very different from what it looked like just a few weeks ago.