Fortuyn's populist legacy favours Dutch sceptics

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In Rotterdam, the face of Pim Fortuyn, the populist scourge of the political elite who was murdered in 2002, smiles down from a statue on a 12-foot plinth. Mr Fortuyn's ghost has now returned to haunt the mainstream politicians he tormented in life.

In the drizzle outside the Dutch parliament in The Hague a handful of jubilant "no" supporters gathered last night in T-shirts with the face of Pim Fortuyn, the populist scourge of the political elite who was murdered in 2002.

The rejection of the EU constitution is "what Pim would have wanted," said Jennifer Vetter, an insurance worker from Rotterdam, adding that the pro-constitution Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, should resign. "If he was an office worker his boss would have told him to quit," she said.

Like the French before them, the Dutch have struck a spectacular blow, not just against the constitution, but against the arrogance of the political establishment that constructed it.

Rotterdam was Mr Fortuyn's home town and, in the run-up to the referendum, it was not easy to find supporters of the European constitution there. Jan-Willem Vissen, a 23-year-old graphic designer, opposed the document; not because of its content, but because of those who wrote it ­ the politicians he mistrusts. "They are always longing for more power," he says.

Instead of looking after themselves, the political leaders should protect the unique system of the Netherlands, with its permissive drugs policy, its tolerance of euthanasia and its liberal approach to gay rights. "I want the country to have its identity," Mr Vissen says, "that's why I am against the constitution."

All the main political parties, including the ruling Christian Democrats, their coalition allies, the centre-right Liberal VVD, and the opposition Labour Party, back the constitution. Each day newspapers ran advertisements from the "yes" campaign explaining why people ought to vote for the constitution.

But unlike the referendum in Spain, where celebrities pledged their support, the Dutch "yes" supporters wheeled out an array of the great and good including such has-beens as the former premier Wim Kok, and the former president of the European Central Bank Wim Duisenberg. The tactic has backfired spectacularly, as even "yes" supporters admit. Peter van Heemst, MP for the opposition, pro-constitution Labour Party, argues: "People do not want to support a government which, they believe, has allowed Europe to grow without their consent."

As in France, the voters have taken the advice of the misfits and outsiders, not the governing class. Only the left-wing Socialist Party, a Christian political party, and the maverick anti-immigration campaigner Geert Wilders have been campaigning for a "no". Mr Wilders, who is under a death threat after his criticism of Islam, has toured the country preaching his message that the constitution will strip Holland of its sovereignty and usher in Turkish immigrants. The success of such a populist is a testament to the failed political leadership across Europe.

The past few weeks have pointed up the shallowness of that leadership. The French and Dutch elite have taken to the airwaves to plead for a "yes" vote. Yet these are by and large the same politicians who have failed to make the case for Europe in the preceding months and years, knocking the EU when it suited their domestic interests ­ a disparity the voters have noticed.