New centre-right government comes in, Populist leader walks out

Searchlight, September 2002

Just two days after the reburial of populist Pim Fortuyn's body in Provesano, Italy, his party, the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), proudly  presented its four cabinet ministers in the new Dutch government, led by the Christian Democrat (CDA) Jan Peter Balkenende.     

The traditional visit by the new government to Queen Beatrix also revealed five ministers for CDA, and four for the liberals (VVD). The government is widely seen as centre-right  and many organisations are already protesting at its policies  and plans. But already, the coalition has been plunged into disarray after Fortuyn's successor, Mat Herben quit his post as LPF-chief on 9 august.

In the weeks before the official presentation of the coalition, the  leaders of its three parties held intense negotiations about its intended policies and though Herben, Fortuyn's  former spokesman, was criticised by party members for 'ruining  Fortuyn's legacy' he emerged with a key ministerial post giving him responsibility for integration and asylum policy.

The LPF  failed to win the appointment of a special minister for security but  saw  one of its favourite targets, the ministry for development aid  wiped out. Though at first sight, the LPF has moved forward it is still wracked by fierce internal rows about money and the re-organisation of the post-Fortuyn party.

At one stage, founding members of the party, including  the LPF's 26-strong parliamentary group, threatened to quit the  party. That  conflict culminated in a special party congress, widely  covered by the media, at which Herben seemed, for the moment at least, to have managed to close the ranks again.

In a newspaper interview, nevertheless,  LPF MP, Winny de  Jong, warned Herben that he "should stop making the pathetic statement that 'This is what Pim wanted'". Herben was often pictured, during breaks in the negotiations with the other parties, with books by  Fortuyn and, during interviews at his home, there is always least one book by the assassinated populist visible in the background.     

The macabre exhumation and reburial of Fortuyn on 20 July  formed a bizarre backcloth to the discussions about ministerial portfolios. The day before, Fortuyn's body was raised  from its grave in Driehuis, in the presence of a media army from a commercial TV station which broadcast the event live. Fortuyn¹s brothers, who are very keen on the media and, it seems, money, had sold the station exclusive rights.     

Fortuyn's body was then transported to Rotterdam Airport where a complete hangar was reserved for him. When the cortege  arrived, several hundred people where there to rubber-neck and  applaud. During the night, a group of relatives stood vigil at the  coffin before flying off together with the cadaver ­ the coffin  wedged between the seats of the plane ­ to Italy where, again,  hundreds of people, mainly Dutch were present. In an enormous monumental grave, Fortuyn found his last resting place in  the small village of Provesano. This ceremony was also  broadcast a live on Dutch television.

Meanwhile the LPF, not invited to take part in any of this  gruesome ceremonial, was busy trying to grab ministries and state  secretaryships to "give shape" to Fortuyn's ideas. Most of the  party's candidates for high office were recruited at the last minute  and then presented as "the best persons for the job". No reporters  have bothered to question why these people were never asked to be ministers by  CDA or VVD, because several of the LPF appointees are former members of these parties.    

The new health care minister, Eduard Bomhoff, is a former social  democrat (PvdA) member and  a columnist of NRC, the same  paper charged, by LPF's legal adviser Gerard Spong, with  inciting hatred against Fortuyn before his murder. Spong, himself,  did not want to become a minister, because the job apparently did  not pay enough. The minister of economic affairs is Herman Heinsbroek, a multi-millionaire who has made his fortune from the music business, while the LPF's minister for asylum policy and immigration, Hilbrand Nawijn, was recruited from the CDA for which he was, until one day before, a town council member in Zoetermeer, a  small community near The Hague. The public transport ministry  has been handed to the VVD member, Roelf de Boer.     

The LPF's first scandal did not take long to erupt. Just seven hours  after being sworn in, Philomena Bijlhout, the LPF's junior minister for emancipation and family affairs and the first-ever Surinamese minister  in a  Dutch  government, had to quit because of her past membership  of the Volks Milities, which  supported the brutal military coup leader, Desi Bouterse, after the the executions of December 1982 in which 15 Surinamese  intellectuals were murdered by the military.    

These events are widely seen as a turning point in the history of  the Dutch colony of Surinam and were condemned throughout the  world at the time. Bijlhout claimed in talks with prime minister Balkenende that her membership of the Volks Milities was before  the killings, but a Dutch TV station revealed photographs which  proved otherwise. The LPF then recruted another woman, Fiona de Vilder, for Bijlhout's job.

De Vilder did not last long either. After talks with the prime-minister, de Vilder, a neighbour of Heinsbroek, said she could not handle the pressure of the job and the media and threw in the towel leaving the post unfilled.

The choice of ministers has thus not exactly been received with acclaim in the ranks of  LPF voters who see the new ministers as  part of the already existing 'establishment' and not as  the "new  political leaders" they want.

The LPF has moved rapidly from  being a kind of anti-political, anti-establishment right-wing  protest movement to a party entangled in establishment politics. Though it undoubtedly represents a  shift to the right its  ideas are, in fact,  not so far removed from those of from VVD or CDA. What is most important is that the key issues of the election  campaign ­ integration and immigration ­ are now in hands of the LPF and new man Nawijn is already boasting cuts of 90% in the  housing and care budget for asylum-seekers.     

On the day the government  was presented, there were protests  by employees and trades unions in that sector. Other measures  envisaged by the government are forced integration courses for migrants, with punishments, including the  loss of residence permits, for those who fail the tests. Migrants  already living in the Netherlands will also lose part of their income if  they fail.

The coalition wants to impose stringent rules for  marriages to people from abroad while family unifications  will be  subject to harsh new procedures and there will be savage cuts in  state payments for children living abroad.     

Refugees without identity papers will have  just three months to  prove who they are and where they came from or they will be  expelled. To remain in the Netherlands without papers will be a  criminal offence and a  special military police team will be set up  to lead the hunt for 'illegals'.

Meanwhile, local councils which  continue to provide refugees with assistance to which they are no longer entitled will face penalties. Many of the families affected  by the planned changes have children born in the Netherlands and  have been in the country for as long as eight years.     

Any countries refusing to take back refugees or migrants will find  that their development aid has been axed. 'Illegals',  who are  sometimes held  in jail for as much as 12 months without being  charged, can no longer be freed by  a judge after examination of their case .     

The Balkenende government will also introduce tough measures  on health care, hitting  poorer people, will cut subsidised jobs in  both the health sector and the police but will be nice to car owners and the nuclear power industry.  Finally, a raft of successful projects for drug abusers and  psychiatric patients will be stopped and those assisted until now  will be treated as criminals.

Solidarity and humanity, keywords,  one would think, for Christian Democrats are miles away from the  government's plans.  If Fortuyn has a legacy, it is that he and his successors have  engendered an atmosphere  of intimidation and fear. Prominent  politicians like former PvdA  leader Ad Melkert and the leader of  the Green Left party, Paul Rosenmoller, for example, are still  under police protection. Melkert, who has been offered a job at the World Bank in New  York, wants to leave the Netherlands because he no longer feels  safe and, since Fortuyn's 6 May murder, he has lived with a  police portacabin in front of his house and regular checks  for  possible bombs.     

Herben, also, has had police protection, having to spend the night in a police station the day before the presentation of the new government because of threats to his home. Ironically, because he did not protest in parliament at Melkert¹s new job, Herben received death threats from his own supporters. While away on holiday, the LPF's colourless leader was the target for public rebuke by his fellow LPF parliamentarians and did the inevitable announcing that he would step down as LPF leader - but retain his parliamentary seat – at the beginning of September, presenting the LPF with its second leadership crisis in four months. This followed an especially inept performance when under attack from opposition leaders just before the annual parliamentary summer recess.

At least four candidates are expected to emerge in a race to succeed Herben, including a former fashion model, an ex-magazine editor and an economisy of Cape Verdean origin who caused a stir when he joined the anti-immigration party.

The main question now is how the fractious LPF can even begin to realise all the  promises Fortuyn made to the angry and disappointed people who  voted for his party and his ideas. On current evidence, it cannot  deliver anything, even the repressive attitude of the new  government being  seen as "soft" by LPF-voters. At the same time, the challenge facing the  democratic and left-wing political parties (and anti-fascists) is to mobilise solidarity and protest against suspicion and hatred and to  show that the policies of the new government will bring more harm  than good to Dutch society and people.

By Jeroen Bosch of Alert! in Utrecht