Leefbaar Rotterdam finds new mouth

Searchlight - January 2006

Leefbaar Rotterdam (LR), the local party of the late right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, has revived itself, following a period of difficulties and internal dissension, as a political threat in Rotterdam in the run up to a vital city council ballot next spring.

In particular, it seems to have found a new mouthpiece in Marco Pastors who has emerged as "the man who says what others only dare think". His arrival on the scene has been underway ever since, on 6 March 2002, LR was catapulted onto the city council, winning 17 of the 45 seats. As a result of this stunning breakthrough, Fortuyn himself was able to negotiate a coalition with the right-wing liberal VVD and the Christian conservative CDA and Pastors was able to start his public career.

Rotterdam has always been the base of the Fortuyn movement and its politics, even more so after the nationally organised List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) flopped so badly as a governmental partner in The Hague and its popular support ebbed away.

In Rotterdam, the effort to carry out Fortuyn's anti-multicultural agenda has been relentless. For example, in the wake of its breakthrough, a plan was launched, backed by the city's mayor Ivo Opstelten, to make the city safer, to enforce the integration of minorities, to end the monocultural character of some city districts and to discuss Islam in so-called open "city-wide debates", all from the idea that muslims are backwards and to blame for all that is going wrong in the city.

During its two years, LR grabbed media headlines more than once, not only as a result of people leaving, or being kicked out of, the party but also for its controversial remarks about immigrants and its fierce attacks on the idea of the multicultural society.

Backed up by this socially negative outlook, Leefbaar Rotterdam abolished the city's multilingual information services before moving on to attack education in "living foreign languages" where children of foreign origin learn their mother tongue so they can learn Dutch more easily. It is a measure of the worsening atmosphere fostered by LR that the government in The Hague later ended kind of education nationally.

At the end of 2002, LR leader Ronald Sorensen, supported by then LR alderman Marco Pastors, opened a "discussion" on planning permission, given by the previous city council, for the building of a mosque.

According to Sorensen, the Dutch do not like such displays of religion and vowed that, if he could not dissuade Muslims from building such a large mosque, he would resort to legal measures to stop the project from going ahead. Interestingly, Sorensen remained silent about plans for the construction of a huge new Russian Orthodox church in the centre of Rotterdam.

At the beginning of 2003, LR entered a hiatus caused by bouts of internal warfare. Michiel Smit, a leading light in the party, was expelled from the party for his contacts with the fascist Vlaams Blok in neighbouring Belgium and, later, councillors Nico Kok and Harry Maronier walked out after rows with Sorensen, leaving LR with only 14 council seats. Soon afterwards, another councillor, Joop van Heijgen, quit the party to enlist in Smit's right-wing extremist NieuwRechts but kept his seat so that he could individually continue to take part in the work of the city council.

It is out of all this turmoil, that Marco Pastors has emerged as, arguably, LR's top personality. In recent public debate, followed anxiously by the rest of the country, about plans to stop migrants from entering Rotterdam unless they had more than a minimum income, it was Pastors who set the tone by dumping the blame for all the city's problems on "foreigners".

Though that project failed, LR showed that it had not run out of ideas by calling for a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols by public employees and, later, in state schools – a radicalisation that found further expression with a visit by four leading LR members to a meeting of the Vlaams Blok-turned-Vlaams Belang in Antwerp.

On 17 March, LR's coalition partners in the conservative christian democrats CDA were so worried by mounting extremism that they initiated a move to stop Pastors from making offensive Islamophobic speeches. The reason for the CDA's stance was that Pastors had again hit the headlines with demands for "a stop on migration" (in Rotterdam), "a halt to minarets" and "a fence around Rotterdam", all aimed at the country's Muslim population. Additionally, he said in an interview that "Muslims use their religion as reason to cover up their criminal behaviour, and to turn their backs on society".

Now, this raving demagogue is getting ready to propel LR into its campaign for the Rotterdam city council elections on 7 March 2006. Worryingly, it is widely believed that the winner of the Rotterdam elections – LR is currently forecast to grab 19 seats already– will be the winner of the parliamentary elections in 2007.

By Jeroen Bosch of Alert! and Antifa-Net in Utrecht