Yesterday's parliamentary elections delivered a resounding blow to the insular world of Dutch establishment politics. The two largest parties in parliament, Labor (PvdA) and the free-market centrist VVD, lost 22 and 15 seats, respectively. Meanwhile, the late Pim Fortuyn's party (LPF), which has never been represented in parliament, finished second with 26 seats. Curiously, one mainstream party remained altogether immune from this popular uproar against the political establishment. The center-right Christian Democrats (CDA) stormed to victory with 43 seats under the leadership of Jan Peter Balkenende.
According to Peter van Krieken, a professor at the Leiden campus of Webster University, the Christian Democrats were one of the only parties that did not alienate Pim Fortuyn's followers. While other parties called Fortuyn "dangerous" or mischaracterized him as an ideological twin of Austria's Jörg Haider or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Christian Democrats remained on the sidelines. As a result, they have been able to attract many of those disillusioned voters who nevertheless did not dare, or were not willing, to vote for Fortuyn's LPF.
Fortuyn's assassination on May 6 prompted many to reconsider their criticisms of his politics. Fortuyn was certainly no angel, and parts of his political platform closely resembled the harsh anti-immigration and anti-Islamic rhetoric of far-right parties throughout Europe. He even acknowledged in a BBC interview that although he did not see himself as a racist, the word might accurately describe many of his supporters. "So what?" Fortuyn said. "Why they vote for me is irrelevant, but if they do they're in safe hands."
That said, his critics jumped to conclusions. Fortuyn was reflexively lumped together with Haider, Le Pen, and Belgium's Vlaams Blok by journalists and editors anxious to color in yet another country on their rapidly expanding maps of the "European far right." In so doing, many overlooked Fortuyn's eclectic politics. His stance on the European Union (EU) was nuanced, he did not advocate sending immigrants home as other parties in Europe have, and he bore no trace of anti-Semitism.
More than anything else, Fortuyn was a deliberate iconoclast, taking every opportunity to smash what he saw as the false idols of the Dutch political establishment with Nietzschean fervor and unmatched rhetorical flair. It was his rejection of the behind-closed-doors deal making of Dutch coalition politics that made him so popular among disaffected and alienated voters. Mainstream candidates like Labor party leader Ad Melkert looked silly in Fortuyn's shadow, unaccustomed to his bluntness and rhetorical assaults. As Peter van Krieken noted presciently before the election, "I know Mr. Melkert, but he lacks the smooth PR communications skills to sell his often brilliant ideas. He has the charisma of an ant, and that will cost him dearly."
But the question remains, who will carry Fortuyn's torch? Both his own brother and the businessman who financed much of his campaign had called on the party to withdraw itself, but that was before they garnered 17 percent of the vote. Fortuyn's second-in-command, Joao Varela, is a 27-year-old immigrant businessman with no political experience. The other candidates that Fortuyn hastily drew together to stand in the elections are also marred by inexperience. According to Henk Houweling, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam, the real question hanging over yesterday's election was, "How many [voters], standing there alone, will have second thoughts?" It seems that few did. As a result, the LPF is now the second-largest party in the Dutch parliament, despite the fact that its namesake is dead, it has no official leader, and at the moment its platform consists of little more than Fortuyn's book, The Ruins of Eight Years of Purple Government (a reference to the now defeated Labor and centrist "purple" coalition).
Though it is unlikely, the strong second-place showing of Fortuyn's LPF could ironically still leave it in an opposition role -- precisely because of the type of backroom dealings that Fortuyn so despised and railed against. Christian Democrat leader Jan Peter Balkenende will probably become the next prime minister, but the negotiations required to form a government may take weeks. While there will be a clear right-wing majority if the Christian Democrats and Fortuyn's LPF join the centrist VVD, there is also a possibility that the LPF will be shut out by a centrist coalition of the Christian Democrats, VVD, and Labor. As Houweling explains, "The public has no say. They vote for a party, not for an individual . [The voter] has little say after the ballot is cast."
In the meantime, there will be a great deal of speculation about the Dutch "shift to the right." And while it's true that Holland's immigration policy will now be dependent on the votes of Fortuyn's LPF -- in much the same way as Denmark's depends on the votes of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party -- the fact is that the tenor of the Dutch immigration debate has been moving right for quite some time. As van Krieken observes, ideas that were considered right wing and even branded "fascist" when raised in the mid-1990s have now come into vogue.
But regardless of who emerges to lead the Dutch, he will be restricted in his ability to act on the issue of immigration, as the field of