Dutch reject politics of consensus to vote for dead man's party

Voters queue to cast votes for murdered politician at the expense of ruling party and a tradition of liberalism
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The Independent Online

In Rotterdam city hall the inquest had already begun yesterday as the ruling Dutch social democrats contemplated defeat in one of the most extraordinary of recent elections.

"We expect a big loss," said Peter van Heest, an MP for the PvdA, the Social Democrats who have been in power since 1994. "We are starting slowly to realise what has been happening. I know I will miss many familiar faces in [the Dutch parliament]. But we are giving each other a lot of personal support in this climate of hate."

As the night went on, his fears were realised. After the first computer predictions came in, Ruud Koole, the party's national secretary, described the result as the worst in the party's history. By 11pm the man bidding to be the PvdA premier, Ad Melkert, had quit as party leader.

Despite delivering years of economic bounty, the PvdA was preparing for a severe setback last night, a victim of the Dutch electorate's determination to drum its rulers from office. The centre-right Christian Democrats made the biggest gains, but a party that did not exist four months ago was catapulted to the position of the second biggest party.

Suddenly the Netherlands' consensual political system, which for so long had all the entertainment value of a Dutch clog dance, had become a spectator sport. This election was turned upside down by the assassination of the maverick, anti-immigration campaigner, Pim Fortuyn, 10 days ago.

As voters strolled through the sunshine to the polling stations many seemed intent on supporting his Lijst Fortuyn, a bickering political party with no leader and precious few policies. Never mind the fact that the shaven-headed politician was buried last Friday, when asked how they had voted, many in Rotterdam replied: "For Pim Fortuyn."

Normally the odd journalist from Belgium and Germany might turn up to cover an election in the Netherlands. Yesterday, every hotel room in The Hague was booked as the world's media flocked to see the last rites being read to the outgoing government.

In Rotterdam city hall, the Czech news agency vied with Catalan radio to interview voters and the council press officer apologised for her (fluent) English. Meanwhile, RTL Dutch TV interviewed foreign correspondents with a polished opening gambit: "Admit it, you would never normally have turned up for a Dutch election."

The opposition Christian Democrats, led by Jan-Peter Balkenende, were the main beneficiaries of this convulsion. Lijst Fortuyn was predicted to come second, and the Christian Democrats will be under massive pressure to admit the party into a coalition, possibly with the Liberals.

The Christian Democrats were already talking of a shift to the right yesterday, for example hardening opposition to a big enlargement of the EU in 2004. In its pursuit of those who backed Mr Fortuyn, the Dutch right may be about to take a new, more aggressive line in social policy and over Europe.

In his office in Rotterdam, the local PvdA leader, Bert Cremers, conceded that the Netherlands' consensual form of decision-making had left many disenchanted. "You have these parties with their programmes – which are all quite rational and moderate – which then come into government and make a coalition. For voters who follow politics on the TV screen it is not at all clear what the differences are between the political parties."

Until municipal elections in March this year the PvdA had been in power continuously in Rotterdam since the Second World War. Now it is licking its wounds in opposition to a Fortuyn-backed organisation.

Crime, lack of security and poor public services – problems linked by Mr Fortuyn to immigration – have fuelled the support for the party he created less than four months ago. He managed to galvanise people who would not normally have bothered voting.

Many Lijst Fortuyn supporters, said Mr Cremers, were "people who see a lack of opportunity, see their neighbour doing better than them, see their neighbourhood changing colour, and have grown-up children who don't want to live in the same neighbourhood anymore. This section of non-voters sees in Pim Fortuyn a saviour of society."

As he left polling station No 1, Jean-Pierre Marchand, a retired civil servant and Fortuyn-backer, reflected that alienation. The politicians, he said, "just want to earn money and have positions". He said fear of crime was the number one issue and linked it to the "colonial problem" of immigration. People from Surinam, he added, happily urinated in the streets and fathered children outside marriage.

Even supporters of the centre and left concede that discontent is widespread. Gijs van der Hulst, a student who voted for the small D66 Liberals, said: "Politics was boring for years and suddenly everyone is interested. People seem to have reacted emotionally, and want to get rid of it all."

But can a party without a leader and a clear platform make any lasting impact? One of its councillors in Rotterdam, Michiel Smit, points out that, for all the bickering and turbulence that has afflicted Lijst Fortuyn since its founder's murder, it is not doing badly.

He denied the party was racist but said Rotterdam had social problems with groups of youths who were mainly Moroccan or Turkish. "Before Pim's death, he said, 'We have to stay together because we have something to do'."

Outside Mr Fortuyn's town house in Rotterdam the crowds had disappeared but floral tributes remained. Mildred Oosterberg, a marketing executive, said she voted for Pim Fortuyn although she had thought hard before backing a party without a leader. Behind her on the gate was a type-written notice put up the day before polling, which read: "Pim Fortuyn, you were the one, you are the one, you will remain the one. Tomorrow we will vote for you."