The Mixed Legacy of Pim Fortuyn
Fifteen years ago this weekend, the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn attended a radio interview in Hilversum, a small town not far from Amsterdam. There was just over a week to go until the 2002 national elections, and opinion polls showed that that Fortuyn’s party was on track to win a significant number of votes – so many, in fact, that he might even become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. After a lively discussion of his future career prospects, Fortuyn left the studio, ready for his next engagement. But as he strode towards his Jaguar, a young man stepped forward and shot him several times. Fortuyn bled to death in the car park.
For the Netherlands – a country where no leader had been assassinated since William of Orange, more than three centuries previously – the assassination was a landmark event in the country’s history; a crime so heinous as to be profoundly “un-Dutch”. Thousands filled the streets in tribute to Fortuyn, and a sea of flowers swept across the pavement in front of his house in Rotterdam. A decade and a half later, the shock has naturally faded, and commemorations of the anniversary are largely low-key. However, long after his death, Fortuyn’s legacy remains significant.
Most obviously, Fortuyn’s meteoric rise helped lay the foundations for a new kind of populism which was once rare, but now dominates headlines worldwide. Geert Wilders, for one, differs from Fortuyn in many ways, but is a clear ideological descendant. “Today we remember a great man”, Wilders tweeted on Saturday, before quoting Fortuyn on the “aggression of Islam”.
In today’s climate, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary such populist sentiments once seemed. In the Netherlands, for much of the post-war era politics was sensible to the point of being utterly boring. Under the so-called ‘polder model’ of government, Dutch votes were usually split among a large number of political parties, and the Netherlands was run largely on the basis of compromise and negotiation. The convergence of major Dutch parties over several years made grand coalitions across the right/left divide possible, but also created a perception that nothing ever really changed. People who rose to the top in Dutch politics were usually boring technocrats rather than consensus-shattering Thatchers or Reagans.
In that context, Pim Fortuyn’s arrival on the scene was the political equivalent of a Groningen earthquake. He was flamboyant and outgoing; a snappy dresser with a soap-opera love life, who deliberately courted the media by saying things which others thought unsayable. “Ik zeg wat ik denk en ik doe wat ik zeg!” he liked to say. “I say what I think and I do what I say!” As tensions rose after 9/11, Fortuyn deftly exploited fears that the Netherlands was in decline and the Dutch had taken tolerance too far, looking the other way even as immigration undermined the very fabric of society. “This is a full country”, he once said. “I think 16 million Dutchmen are about enough.” Many Dutch were appalled by his views, but many others were thrilled: in March 2002, Fortuyn’s party stunned the establishment by winning more than a third of the vote in local elections in Rotterdam. Shortly afterwards, opinion polls showed that Fortuyn was among the front-runners to become the next Prime Minister, or at least secure a major role in a coalition government. Ultimately, history intervened and prevented that happening – but fifteen years on, it’s hard not to conclude that much Dutch political debate – including the recent Wilders-dominated election campaign – is still conducted in Fortuyn’s shadow. He was a populist before it was popular to be one.
Fortuyn’s other great legacy was to reset the parameters for political debate in the Netherlands. In almost every country, there are certain red lines which any sensible politician would never dare to cross. In America, for example, it’s all but impossible for prospective leaders to criticise the military, while in Britain it’s career suicide for a politician to express anything less than a deep love for the National Health Service. In general, the positions of these red lines are well-established along party lines: politicians who take a conservative stance on economic issues also take a conservative stance on social issues. Conservative Republicans and French National Fronters who aren’t keen on open borders and free trade are also not usually big fans of gay marriage. In the Netherlands, issues relating to race and immigration were long considered well over the red line – newspapers were restricted from reporting the race of criminal suspects, and any politician who criticised immigration risked a firestorm of criticism. Dutch tolerance only went so far.
Fortuyn, though, helped completely redefine those parameters, taking a strong right-wing stance on some issues while remaining very liberal on others. Crucially, he argued that his own intolerance of Islam was a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance: when a Dutch imam famously said that homosexuals were “pigs”, Fortuyn said that the imam had a right to voice that opinion – but that Fortuyn himself also had a right to say that the imam’s religion was “backward” or “retarded”. Media interviews would move seamlessly from discussions of how much Fortuyn hated radical Islam to how much he enjoyed pursuing young men in Rotterdam’s gay bars. “I don’t hate Arab men – I even sleep with them”, he said. For all his outspokenness, the red lines which Fortuyn drew were clear: criticism of immigrants or Islam was fair game, but hostility towards gays, transsexuals, drug users, divorced people or single parents was beyond the pale. Nearly a generation later, these red lines still exist – Geert Wilders is happy to stand trial for promoting hatred against Moroccans, but staunchly defends gay rights. This careful straddling of fences also helps explain why Fortuyn’s reputation has survived relatively intact: in contrast with people like the Le Pens, he’s often remembered as someone whose views were controversial rather than hateful.
Looking back, it’s impossible to guess what might have happened had Fortuyn lived and won the elections. Looking around today’s Netherlands, and surveying its political scene, one suspects he would not approve. Yet whatever one’s politics, it’s fairly certain that if Fortuyn had risen to power, many of his cheerleaders would have turned against him sooner or later. In the worst case, his anti-immigrant policies might have been taken to their logical, Trumpian conclusion: discrimination and deportations on the polder. In the best case, a Prime Minister Fortuyn might have stayed true to his better instincts, but still ended up disappointing those who hoped he’d deliver radical change, just as every other inspiring leader from Blair to Obama (and, soon, Emmanuel Macron) inevitably does. Either way, to many Rotterdammers, he remains an iconic figure: a kind of Dutch Princess Diana, about whom it’s impossible to say a bad word.