Rightist politician's assassination stuns Netherlands

An animal-rights militant is suspected in the Monday shooting death of Pim Fortuyn.

The mood in the Netherlands remains somber after the shooting death of Pim Fortuyn, a controversial right-wing politician running on an anti-immigrant platform for parliamentary elections next week.

In a country that views itself as peaceful and tolerant of diverging views, the assassination has triggered a state of shock. Dutch newspapers are comparing the killing Monday to the Kennedy assassination. The last political leader to be assassinated in the Netherlands was in the 16th century.

The openly homosexual, middle-aged Fortuyn used his charismatic style to focus attention on a simmering issue that many Dutch politicians had been reluctant to touch: immigration.

Part of a rising tide of nationalist, anti-immigrant politics in several European nations, Fortuyn's party came out of nowhere to capture 17 of the 45 council seats in city elections in Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second city. He was expected to become a major force in the national parliament.

Strangely enough for a politician running on an anti-immigration platform, a recent poll in the leading Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, focused on his popularity among immigrants. According to the survey, many immigrants approved Fortuyn's breaking of longstanding taboos in Dutch politics and his role as catalyst in opening discussion about underlying tensions between native Dutch residents and the immigrant population.

The article states that his popularity among those groups was for "putting the finger on the sour wounds, stimulating debate, and giving immigrants their own responsibility back as real citizens." Nearly 2 million people in this densely populated country of close to 16 million are ethnic minorities – almost 800,000 of Muslim origin, mainly from Morocco and Turkey.

Many of Fortuyn's supporters claimed that they were behind him because he broke the silence that had been cast over Dutch politics for years on immigration and crime. They refused to categorize him as racist.

Even if they disagreed with the views of Fortuyn and his supporters, other politicians across the country had to pay attention.

"Just because part of the population may be right wing or racist doesn't mean the government can ignore their views," says Lousewies van der Laan, a leftist Dutch representative of the European Parliament.

Fortuyn, who had once been a Marxist, was one of the latest in a series of right-wing politicians who have shocked the left-leaning political elite of Europe – though Fortuyn was also known for not wanting to be lumped into the crowd of right-wing European populists. Echoing the arguments of far-right politicians Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and Jörg Haider of Austria, he called for a halt to immigration. But he rejected further comparisons, saying he was not a racist and that he was pro-Israel.

In recent interviews Fortuyn said that Islam was a "backward" culture. He fulminated against Muslims – who, he said, posed a threat to Dutch egalitarianism, reflected in such policies as full rights for women.

Last year, Fortuyn was kicked out of the leftist party Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands) for criticizing a Rotterdam imam's remarks that "gays were worse than pigs."

Fortuyn had moved Liveable Netherlands to the right on a campaign of criticizing the government for uncontrolled immigration polices and excessive bureaucracy. After being booted, he formed his own party around his own name and went on to win 35 percent of the votes for city council in Rotterdam, a port city of blue-collar workers and newly arrived immigrants where one third of the population is made up of ethnic minorities.

Polls released Sunday showed the Lijst (Party of) Pim Fortuyn (LPF) likely to be a leader among the seven main parties in the upcoming national elections. Party members say they hope they can ride a wave of sympathy as well as the recognition Fortuyn gained in the last three months of campaigning.

LPF spokesman Mat Herben said after the shooting: "The government now has to stay calm and the democratic process must move forward." The LPF is searching for a new leader out of a relatively unknown crop of members of whom Fortuyn was the only nationally known name.

Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok said yesterday that general elections would go ahead as planned on May 15.

Fortuyn, who did not travel with a bodyguard, had recently voiced fears for his safety after protesters threw cream pies laced with urine in his face. His lawyers are criticizing the government for failing to provide him protection. Fortuyn was shot by a lone gunman after giving a radio interview south of Amsterdam. A suspect now in custody is a militant animal-rights activist who may have taken issue with Fortuyn's proposal to revive fur farming, the Dutch national news agency (ANP) reported yesterday.

• Material from Agence France-Presse was used in this report.

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