Leaderless Fortuyn party to beat government

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The Independent Online

The Party created by the maverick Dutch right-winger Pim Fortuyn was in disarray on the eve of the general election in the Netherlands, despite strong signs that it will win a place in government in the country's most unpredictable poll in recent memory.

Peter Langendam, appointed on Saturday as chairman of the Lijst Fortuyn Party, resigned yesterday amid bitter recriminations over the murder of Mr Fortuyn on Monday last week.

The assassination of the charismatic anti-immigration campaigner has plunged Dutch politics into turmoil, raising the prospect of a big upset in the election today.

The latest opinion poll suggests that Lijst Fortuyn will reap a large sympathy vote and finish in second place behind the opposition Christian Democrats, with the social democrats, who dominate the current coalition, suffering a serious defeat.

However the leaderless Lijst Fortuyn party looks increasingly ill-prepared for its expected success.

With campaigning cancelled as a mark of respect to Mr Fortuyn, there was little outward sign of an impending election yesterday, but that has not stopped an increasingly bitter public blame game over his death.

On Monday Mr Fortuyn's lawyers filed suits against politicians, journalists and political organisations for "creating an environment" which led to the first political assassination in the Netherlands in modern times. Mr Langendam blamed the government for the assassination and was quoted as saying that "the bullet came from the left, not the right".

Those comments enraged the caretaker Prime Minister and outgoing leader of the social democrats, Wim Kok, and yesterday Mr Langendam was force to apologise. Distancing himself from his earlier statements, the party chairman promised to give no further interviews and said that the left was not to blame.

Although the post of party chairman in most Dutch political parties is important, the lack of a big party structure within Lijst Fortuyn made Mr Langendan more of a figurehead than a potential leader.

Created by Mr Fortuyn as a vehicle for his ambitions just four months ago, Lijst Fortuyn has few potential successors to its charismatic founder, and those left behind have little in the way of developed policy.

The number two on the list, Joao Varela, a 27-year-old black immigrant from Cape Verde, declared that he will not run for the post of leader because of his youth. The favourite is Winny de Jong, the head of a food industry association, although the party's media spokesman Matt Herben is also a contender.

Mr Fortuyn's former right-hand man and the co-founder of the party, Albert De Booij, has announced his resignation, saying he was involved with Lijst Fortuyn because of his friendship with Mr Fortuyn and has no political aspirations.

The eclectic group of candidates running for the Lijst Fortuyn party includes a pig farmer and a former Miss Holland, Irena Pantelic, who claims she was demoted on the party list for spurning advances from figures in the party hierarchy.

However there was turmoil too for the social democrats, who are expected to suffer a crushing rejection by the voters, despite an economically successful spell in office.

Ad Melkert, the new head of the Labour Party and the chosen successor to Mr Kok, resisted pressure to step aside, despite a sharp fall in the polls and criticism that his television performances have been leaden and that he is out of touch with voters.

Yesterday the party hierarchy sought to fend off mounting calls for Mr Melkert's resignation. Susan Baart, his spokeswoman, said the party leader's position was "not an issue", adding: "He is the head of the party and leads the list of candidates."

Mr Kok used a television interview to caution the public against casting a protest vote in favour of the Lijst Fortuyn, calling on people to "use your common sense".

"Emotions are running high and it's understandable after the recent and dramatic events. But this is about the future of our society," he said.

Meanwhile police arrested three suspects accused of an attack on Mr Fortuyn in March in which he was smeared in a cake which included excrement. The justice ministry said that a team of 55 people will conduct an investigation into possible links with the man suspected of murdering Mr Fortuyn, a 32-year-old environmental activist, Volkert van der Graaf.

A group calling itself the Biologische Bakkers Brigade had admitted responsibility for the cake-smearing episode, saying the act was designed to break through the charisma of the "unassailable extreme right populist". A written statement claiming that the action was taken because Mr Fortuyn was inciting hate was left at the scene.