Fortuyn's party poised for power

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The Netherlands voted for a decisive shift to the right yesterday as the party founded by the maverick far-right politician Pim Fortuyn became the second-biggest force in Dutch politics.

The centre-right Christian Democrats were clear winners in yesterday's elections, held only nine days after the murder of Mr Fortuyn, and were expected to clinch 43 of the 150 seats in parliament. But they will now be under massive pressure to form a coalition with the followers of Mr Fortuyn, whose party, with 26 seats, was contesting its first national election after scoring a runaway success in municipal elections in March.

Yesterday's result was a rout for the Social Democrats of the PvdA party, which will now be out of office, having led the country for eight years. They were predicted to win just 23 seats, almost half their tally last time.

The outcome was described as the worst defeat for Prime Minister Wim Kok's party since the Second World War. It tied with the Liberal Party, its partner in the outgoing coalition government, for third place with 23 seats. Last night Ad Melkert, who had hoped to become prime minister, resigned as PvdA chairman.

Mr Kok said: "The voters gave us a huge thrashing. The people of the Netherlands have made a different choice." Addressing his supporters the grim-faced outgoing premier added: "These are difficult times for social democracy, not just in the Netherlands but also elsewhere in Europe."

The leader of the Christian Democrats, Jan Peter Balkenende, the most likely next Prime Minister, was non-commital about his future coalition partners, but argued that "citizens want a different kind of politics". The rejection of the Social Democrats makes a coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Lijst Fortuyn likely. Mr Balkenende, who has benefited from Mr Fortuyn's campaigning, said his party, "will put our ideas forward and we will see with whom we can reach an agreement."

The party's supporters were ecstatic. "We hadn't even dared to dream of this outcome," one official said. "There will, in any case, be a Christian Democrat prime minister."

The Dutch flocked to the polls in their most volatile election for decades. Voting was brisk and turn-out was estimated at about 80 per cent.

Mr Fortuyn, a flamboyant, openly gay politician who described Islam as "backward," was killed on 6 May by a lone gunman after a campaign radio interview. His murder shocked Europe at a time when far-right appear resurgent.

Yesterday's vote will be watched closely in European capitals, coming in the wake of the French presidential elections in which 5.8 million people voted for Mr Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, in the second round against President Jacques Chirac. Elections last year in Italy and Denmark also ousted the centre-left and brought more hardline right-wingers close to government.

The electoral earthquake in the Netherlands is likely to mean a toughening of immigration policy, with tighter curbs on asylum-seekers, perhaps similar to those introduced in Denmark after its change of government.

Policy towards European integration may also be hardened, with the Dutch government likely to be more hostile to a large expansion of the EU in 2004.