Pim Fortuyn's legacy

Searchlight, May 2004

After three years of populist "revolt" by the movement to which the late Pim Fortuyn gave his name, it is time to draw up the balance sheet, examine what is left of Fortuyn's ideas and see whether his List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) and some similar purely local parties managed to realise Fortuyn's plans for the salvation of the Netherlands.

In editions of Searchlight going back to 2002, one can trace the chronology of events: from Fortuyn's rise on the wave of Islamophobia and law and order rhetoric in the Netherlands in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the US, to the murder on Pim Fortuyn on 6 May 2002 and the subsequent catapulting of 26 of his disciples - representing 1.6 million votes - into the Dutch parliament in the May 2002 elections.

In 1998, after four years of economic prosperity and four years of the "purple" coalition of Social Democrats (PvdA), rightist liberals (VVD) and Democrats (D'66), some signs of what was to come were already visible on the political landscape.

While the differences between the Social Democrats and rightist liberals had virtually vanished, the Christian Democrat opposition was in internal crisis and the left parties, GroenLinks and Socialist Party, were too small to act, some populist smart guys decided to organise under the name "Liveable" in Hilversum and Utrecht.

From being political zeroes, these first two "Liveable" outfits became the biggest party in Hilversum and in the Netherlands fourth biggest city, Utrecht.

Their brand of politics was unprecedented: anti-establishment, anti-political culture, their programme was a bizarre mish-mash of pro-referenda "power to the people" politics, environmental issues and "small is beautiful"-type opposition to big public projects. Their membership was largely composed of inexperienced people or dropouts from other parties.

In the slipstream of Fortuyn's entry into politics in 2001 and his adhesion to Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands), his supporters - and other people seeking political success - started founding local parties with the magic name "Liveable" throughout the country.

The mushrooming of these parties in 2002 had a dramatic effect, not least their election to councils in the most obscure places in the Netherlands. Some of those, too, are still there but, overall, their influence is negligible.

But what of Fortuyn's ideas? In February this year, the LPF founded a scientific Institute to try to make an overall program out of Fortuyn's thinking. That this has still not been done is probably the best indication that his ideas were an incoherent and contradictory collection of slogans, books, one-liners and interviews.

Fortuyn did not have an ideology, opting to cannibalise ideas from all varieties of political belief, including the radical left's ideas of grass roots democracy, social democracy's views on the right to social care, some Christian democrats values, lower taxes from the liberals and a hatred of the welfare state, feminists and foreigners from the conservatives and ultra right.

His fans were mostly attracted by his television-appearances, in what experts call the "mediacracy". In fact, the media tried to break Fortuyn by confronting him with his simple solutions for complex problems but, at the same time, it needed him as a livewire to be pitted against the other, colourless, political leaders. Fortuyn appearing in your show meant a huge boost in viewing figures and the name of the programme splashed all over the newspapers the next day, when Fortuyn again delivered a controversial one-liner. After his murder, his supporters curiously blamed the media for "demonisation" of their idol and forced them to justify their editorial decisions. In response some media established an ombudsman or a weekly editorial to explain their choices what news to bring and all media put more energy to bring the 'voice of the man in the street'.

The main political inheritors of the "Fortuynism", the LPF and Leefbaar Rotterdam (Liveable Rotterdam), are seen as politically quite influential, although they do not have as much power as they would like. The LPF has 8 seats in parliament and saw the CDA and VVD create a government without them in 2003. It says it mainly exists to "keep the VVD on the rightist track". The LPF also has 10 seats in provincial parliaments, with four in the south of the Netherlands, where Fortuyn's Rotterdam stronghold is located. Their impact in these institutions is slight.

The governing parties as well as the mainstream opposition have all partly adopted the issues spearheaded by Fortuyn and previous taboos have been rapidly torn down. Discussion about immigration has evolved into a rancorous and sometimes xenophobic debate, in which prejudices and generalisations are fighting for the upper hand.

The programmes that resulted from the May 2002 elections are being adapted by the right-wing government elected in 2003 and encouraged not only by rightist neo-liberals like Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the VVD but also by the law and order-fetishists and Islam-bashers, Camiel Eurlings and Wim Camp from the Christian Democrats.

Besides the harsh anti-refugee laws invented by the "purple coalition" some years ago, and now being implemented by the CDA-VVD-D'66 government, there are also harsh measures being introduced on integration, the penal code, control in public places, education and the distribution of social groups in the Netherlands' big cities.

How far this all is Fortuyn's legacy - or just a combination of the threat of terrorist attacks and the overall feelings of insecurity and suspicion of foreigners - is hard to say. Recent polls show that a majority of the Dutch feel that their culture is threatened and that they blame migration. The solution, they think, is to close the borders.

Leefbaar Rotterdam (LR), which was led by Fortuyn in the 6 March 2002 elections, still has 13 seats on Rotterdam the city council. Recent polls indicate that it would lose at least 10 seats if elections were held now. LR leader Ronald Sorensen thinks voters are satisfied with what his party accomplishes, but that they only see the pragmatic, zero tolerance, city mayor, Ivo Opstelten, as the force and face behind law and order changes in Rotterdam. This has left LR having to work on a campaign to show that it was the author of all the proposals to make Rotterdam, in their eyes, a safer place.

Fortuyn showed that there was political vacuum in the Netherlands. That vacuum is still there, space being available for the emergence of politicians without a party, without ideology and with a pragmatic attitude to rule the country unhindered by party discipline or the collectivism of the traditional party system.

It is self-appointed Fortuyn adepts like Michiel Smit, from the right wing extremist party, NieuwRechts, who is running as a candidate in the coming Euro-election, that are desperately trying to fill that vacuum.

The rise of Fortuyn also gave many racist and fascist groups and Internet initiatives much confidence, giving them a path into the electoral power base. So far, however, they have failed to capitalise on it.

What the Fortuyn "revolt" brought above all is an even wider variety of racists and people who hate "the left" than ever existed before in the Netherlands.

Sadly, the traditional Dutch political parties are also steeping their snouts in Fortuyn's trough to win the votes he left, widening the gap between rich and poor, between migrants and the Dutch, even more.

Migrants feel more and more marginalised and even the most moderate democrats on the Dutch political scene, D'66, now even want them to exclude them from social benefits for their first seven years in the Netherlands. A society based on the survival of the fittest, it comes close to what Pim Fortuyn wanted.

By Jeroen Bosch of Alert! and Antifa-Net
alertafa@xs4all.nl

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