Anger, remorse and confusion in a country famed for its tolerance

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The Independent Online

Leurs Henk lives 40km from the city but yesterday he waited for an hour outside Pim Fortuyn's detached home in suburban Rotterdam, in a queue snaking behind police barriers right around the block.

"He made such an earthquake in our country," said Mr Henk. "He was killed like a dog. I cried yesterday when I heard the news, I feel like crying now." All day admirers of the maverick politician made their way to the makeshift shrine outside the home of Mr Fortuyn, who was murdered on Monday evening.

Behind Mr Henk in the queue the mood was angry as another supporter, Mary Deboer, came over as blunt as her political hero: "What this means is that if you speak your mind, you're dead over here."

Yesterday the Netherlands was experiencing the range of emotions: anger, remorse and, perhaps more than anything else, confusion. The acting Prime Minister, Wim Kok, was probably being truthful when he said that words alone could not express his feelings for what had happened in a country renowned for its tolerance.

Had Mr Fortuyn been killed by an immigrant, the world would have found it easier to make sense of the murder, if not to excuse it. But the suspect being held by police is a 32-year-old university-educated white Dutch citizen linked to animal rights groups. Perhaps only in the Netherlands could the man bidding to become the country's first openly gay prime minister be assassinated by an environmental activist.

The cold-blooded slaying of Mr Fortuyn marks the end of an extraordinary chapter in Dutch politics, and one which leaves an uncertain legacy. The maverick former sociology professor, who campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket, was hardly the average right-winger. Not only was he gay, he was proud of a lifestyle which would have disqualified him from political success in many European countries.

Shaven-headed Mr Fortuyn travelled in a chauffeured Daimler, employed a butler and often had his two small dogs in tow. His first political vehicle was a grassroots movement, Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands), an umbrella group of local parties which, by last year, had begun to break the mould of Dutch politics.

That was no easy act, because consensus is something of a religion in the Netherlands, which has built its economic success on a politics which avoids boat-rocking and stresses consultation and consensus. The same familiar faces tend to dominate the top jobs: for example Mr Kok, the outgoing prime minister, has been in office since 1995 at the head of a three-party coalition. The secret of the Fortuyn formula was the glee with which it took on the political establishment and said the unsayable. With immigration, Mr Fortuyn had the perfect vehicle: the Netherlands has an ethnic minority population higher than most of its European partners at around 10 per cent, but political debate on the issue was rare.

When Mr Fortuyn began to change all that, he was expelled from Leefbaar (although he kept strong links with the group) and founded the Lijst Fortuyn.

Mr Fortuyn insisted he was not a racist and did not advocate repatriation. But he was in favour of denying immigrants the right to be reunited with their families and a critic of Islam, a faith he derided as "backward" for its lack of respect for homosexuality and its treatment of women. A Rotterdam imam duly played into his hands by describing gays as worse than pigs.

In the immigrant community yesterday there was relief that the suspect is white. The Forum Institute for Multicultural Development condemned the murder but, not suprisingly, the queues to pay respects to Mr Fortuyn showed few black or Asian faces.

Mr Fortuyn would take on other groups too, environmentalists included – possibly part of the motivation for his killing. Although green issues were hardly high on the Fortuyn agenda, he was quoted as telling a Dutch green group: "The whole environmental policy in the Netherlands has no substance any more. And I'm sick to death of your environmental movement."

Such boldness may have cost him his life, but it was what drew supporters to him. Outside the cavernous Rotterdam city hall, hundreds waited in the summer sunshine yesterday to sign a book of condolence.

"He had the guts to kick the establishment in the ass," said Erik Schulp, a Fortuyn supporter from Rotterdam. "For years, it's been the politics of trying to find a compromise, not trying to stand firmly behind a certain opinion, to find a way to weave through. He had an opinion and he stood up for it."

What happens to this strong groundswell of dissatisfaction is the key debate in Dutch politics. After holding talks at his official residence in The Hague with a delegation of Fortuyn supporters, including the slain leader's brother, Mr Kok declared that elections scheduled for 15 May will proceed as planned but without campaigning.

Fortuyn supporters had strongly backed that course, hoping a massive sympathy vote will boost their prospects. That must now be a real possibility, although some politicians believe many potential Fortuyn backers will refuse to vote. Despite its lack of preparation, a quick poll is the best prospect for Lijst Fortuyn ; the alternative, a postponement perhaps until September, might have led to the party slipping from the public consciousness.

But can a party built so clearly around one man, and whose candidates included such political lightweights as a former Miss Holland, have any future after his death?

Michiel Smit, a Leefbaar Rotterdam councillor and ally of Mr Fortuyn, reflects the contradictory sentiments within the party. Aged 25, he owns his own company and is wearing red braces as he holds court inside the city hall, arguing: "It is such a difficult situation. No-one can really take over. It is impossible for someone else to be Pim Fortuyn." On the other hand, he adds, "there is a really strong feeling that we should stick together. We have to make this work because people expect so much of us. What has happened today [the queues outside city hall] is amazing." Last night Mr Smit's colleagues were still debating whether or not to continue Lijst Fortuyn under a new leader. One potential candidate is Winny de Jong, a former official in the Dutch foodstuffs bureau; another is Mat Herben, an ex-civil servant. Other possibilities include renaming the group or returning to Leefbaar Nederland.

But the more important question is how the traditional parties react. Mr Fortuyn has put at the top of the agenda a series of fundamental and thorny issues: health, education, law and order and – of course – immigration. Even without a shaven-headed demagogue to torture the political establishment, they will not easily go away.