Right-wing populist Fortuyn spearheads right-wing election gains

Article for Searchlight - April 2002

In local elections on 6 March, over a third of the voters opted for right-wing local 'Liveable' parties instead of the traditional mainstream parties. The 57.7% turnout marked the lowest ever participation in such elections and the votes for local protest-type parties, for the first time, outstripped those of the mainstream Christian Democrats (CDA), traditionally the biggest party in municipal ballots.

In Rotterdam, Pim Fortuyn, the leading candidate of the right-wing populist Leefbaar Rotterdam, saw his party emerge from nowhere to grab 17 seats on the city's 45-seat council. In parliamentary terms, such a vote would enable Fortuyn and his allies to win as many as 18 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament.

So, what happened on 6 March?

In Searchlight's January edition, Fortuyn was described as the leading candidate for Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands-LN), a new conservative populist party. In an interview with the newspaper De Volkskrant on the weekend of 9 February, he gave ample confirmation of his widely-known, views on Islam, discrimination and migration. Telling the paper that he wants to abolish Article 1 of the Dutch constitution, which guarantees the equal treatment of all citizens of the Netherlands, he called Islam "a backward culture" he declared that no more refugees should be allowed into the Netherlands.

His remarks were not greeted with the acclaim he expected. Indeed, Jan Nagel, the chairman of LN, and some other important founders of the party, were left reeling by the vehemence of Fortuyn's comments and kicked him out of the party.

Though, evidently, LN did not want to be associated with right-wing ideas the way he expressed them, Fortuyn was not deterred and immediately launched his own party, Lijst-Fortuyn, so that he can contest the coming general election. Leefbaar Rotterdam, meanwhile, kept him as its leading candidate and smashed its way into the headlines.

In the weeks leading up to the local elections, the leading candidates of the mainstream parties devoted much effort to strident shouting about "public security" and "foreigners" in a frantic bid to gain ground on Fortuyn. The CDA's leading candidate even stated that a multi-ethnic society in the Netherlands is "not something to work for".

Equally, conspiracy theories were doing the rounds, including one claiming that the split between Fortuyn and LN was deliberately engineered by Jan Nagel to ensure that LN was no longer seen as right-wing and that both Fortuyn and LN could mount attacks on the governing coalition from the left as well as from the right.

Massively overshadowed by Fortuyn and the local Livable parties, the fascist Dutch People's Union (NVU) and the New National Party (NNP) fought seats in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Arnhem, Leeuwarden, Landgraaf and Kerkrade but their campaigns never got off the ground.

The fascists failed miserably to distinguish themselves from the other right-wing parties and displayed a welcome lack of self-confidence. Also, they were strongly challenged by Anti-Fascist Action, whose activists systematically tore down their posters, distributed tens of thousands of anti-fascist (and anti-Fortuyn) leaflets and put advertisements in local newspapers, calling on people not to vote fascist. As a result, the NVU did not gain a seat while the NNP only won two seats in the Feijenoord district of Rotterdam.

Right-wing Liveable parties, with clearly racist programmes or racists on their candidates' list, won two seats in Amsterdam, six in Delft and three in Maastricht. In Kollum, where there were demonstrations against an asylum-seekers' centre some years ago, the anti-foreigner VZ2000 party won three seats.

The significance of the local elections is that they denote the first time in the Netherlands that a right-wing populist outfit has gained so much ground. Although Fortuyn is clearly different from fascists like Haider in Austria and Dewinter in Belgium, he uses the same populist tactics and campaign themes as the Freedom Party and the Vlaams Blok. At the same time, he is not carrying any nazi baggage and rejects the recruitment of fascists into his party.

Nevertheless, his rabid anti-foreigner rhetoric and his hysterical Islamophobia make him an undoubted magnet for right-wing extremists and racist voters. People, it seems, like Fortuyn because he does not care about the post-war taboos of Dutch politics and challenges those in power.

The coming months and the parliamentary elections on 15 May will be a real test of the ability of anti-fascists to convince ordinary Dutch people that a vote for a racist and neo-liberal party will not, in any way, shape or form, enable them to solve their problems.

From Jeroen Bosch of Anti-Fascist Action in Utrecht