Dutch voters fall for flamboyant right-winger

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The Independent Online

He is shaven-headed, gay and travels in a chauffeured black Daimler. But the man who has caused an earthquake in Dutch politics is also the latest right-wing populist to rise to prominence in Europe on an anti- immigration ticket.

Pim Fortuyn, a charismatic former sociology professor, emerged triumphant from Wednesday's municipal elect-ions in the Netherlands with a series of results which threw the established parties into turmoil. With a general election due in less than two months, the emergence of a flamboyant leader eager to exploitimmigration fears has cast a new shadow over Dutch politics.

Mr Fortuyn's philosophy may not be as extreme as that of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria or the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, but the core message is not dissimilar.

A strong tinge of xenophobia is only half of the recipe, however. Mr Fortuyn's extrovert personality has cut a swath through the bland coalition politics of the Netherlands. He cultivates an eccentric, slightly camp, image – he owns two small dogs and employs a butler – that could hardly be further from that of the modest and down-to-earth centre-left Prime Minister, Wim Kok.

Even fierce opponents concede that Mr Fortuyn's arrival on the scene has injected a little life into everyday politics. Lousewies van der Laan, a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch social liberals, says that "something is happening on the political scene – it is refreshing, if not particularly tasteful".

Even before Wednesday's success, Mr Fortuyn was a well-known figure through Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands), an umbrella group of local parties that became the biggest new political movement in the country for 25 years. Mr Fortuyn was its leading light until he was sacked for flouting policy guidelines with his call for the reversal of anti-discrimination measures in the constitution, and for a halt to the immigration of Muslims.

Ejected from the organisation's leadership, Mr Fortuyn founded his own national party, the eponymously-named Lijst Fortuyn. But the links remain strong – so strong that opponents believe that the split may have been engineered to allow Mr Fortuyn and Leefbaar Nederland to attract different sets of voters.

Because Wednesday's elections were municipal, Mr Fortuyn could stand for the local branch of Leefbaar Nederland in the port of Rotterdam, winning a stunning victory with 34.7 per cent of the votes.

In Eindhoven, the fifth largest Dutch city, an affiliated local party made a similar surge, gaining nearly 19 percent of the vote. Dutch parties forming the ruling coalition suffered serious losses.

Significantly, polls show a meteoric rise for Lisjt Fortuyn which, together with Leefbaar Nederland, could overtake the ruling coalition in parliamentary elections on 15 May.

How has this happened in the tolerant and politically-correct Netherlands?

In fact immigration has been an issue for several years. Frits Bolkestein, now the Dutch European Commissioner, was one of the first to call for a debate that would "break the taboo" over immigration, albeit in a nuanced and uninflammatory way.

Meanwhile, the Dutch electorate seems to have been getting increasingly disgruntled with its political establishment. Voter alienation has been widespread in Europe, which saw big anti-globalisation protests last year, and the Netherlands, where the political class is well dug in, is not immune. Mr Kok's three-party coalition government has been in power for seven years and before that the Christian Democrats were in government for 70 years, longer than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

The key question is whether Mr Fortuyn's success reflects anything more than a desire for a change from sections of a disgruntled and anxious electorate. His political opponents argue he has no realistic policies, that calls for better health care and education without additional taxation are pie in the sky.

Next week the maverick politician will publish a book laying out his political philosophy. He may also have a chance to put it into practice because there seems little effort to block him from taking a role in the municipal government in Rotterdam.

As Ms van der Laan puts it: "Between now and the elections in May, he has two months to prove he can do something more than make noise."