Murder in the Netherlands

What the death of Pim Fortuyn says about the Dutch, the politics of exclusion--and the scary corrosion of public life in Europe

He was openly gay, a flashy dresser, and politically incorrect to the point of outrageousness. But by the time Pim Fortuyn was gunned down in a parking lot on May 6, the upstart right-wing Dutch politician had singlehandedly riveted public attention on the hot-button issues of immigration, crime, and the self-serving ways of the Dutch elite. Fortuyn had a reasonable shot at winning the largest bloc in the Dutch parliament--and the chance to wield real power in one of Europe's richest countries. He might even have become Prime Minister.

Now, he's gone--and so are many of the illusions the Dutch had about the decency of their politics and their public life. "The Dutch always like to believe that we are in a special corner of the world where really dirty things don't happen," says Hans van Baalen, parliamentary foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Party. "This will change Dutch society like September 11 changed America."

Van Baalen could just as well be speaking for all of Europe. For decades, Europeans thought their streets were safe, their politicians competent, their welfare states tolerant and sustaining. But Europe is a different place these days--a place where racial hatreds simmer just below the surface, where people increasingly fear street crime, where political elites are cut off from voters, where extremist politicians are increasingly finding support, and where executives are wondering if the dysfunctional welfare state can ever be fixed. Fortuyn is dead, but the issues he raised and opportunistically exploited will dog the Continent for years to come.

It's easy to understand why. In many ways, the Netherlands is a microcosm of Europe. The Dutch built a welfare state that for decades was able to provide jobs and generous social services to its citizens as well as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean, North Africa, and Turkey. Then, in the 1990s, the Dutch reinvented their welfare state by cutting taxes and adopting a more flexible labor regime. That paid off in one of the highest growth levels in Europe.

But the Dutch miracle never eradicated the huge cultural differences between the immigrant communities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam and mainstream Dutch life. The Dutch grew alarmed at the growing presence of people they considered outsiders: One-third of the population of the big cities was from foreign backgrounds, and, with practicing Christians scarce, Islam became the most dynamic religious force. Then the economy cooled, and fear of street crime and immigrants jumped. After September 11, more attacks on Muslims occurred in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe.

Fortuyn, 54, a former sociology professor and columnist for a right-wing business magazine, emerged at just the right time to exploit this situation from his base in gritty Rotterdam. He had long tried to break into the top ranks of the various national parties with little success. The growing discontent gave him a chance for revenge.

Fortuyn was everything the bland Establishment pols weren't--wickedly humorous and wildly unconventional. Although he called himself an intellectual, his program was populist to the hilt. He blasted the vaunted polder model by which business, politicians, and the unions reach consensus as a stifling cartel. Indeed, because coalitions of almost interchangeable parties have ruled the Netherlands for decades, the elite has ossified. Fortuyn called for giving more power to voters by directly electing both Prime Ministers, who are now chosen by parliamentary coalitions, and city mayors, who are appointed by the queen. "Fortuyn's campaign has shaken up Dutch politics more than anything in decades," says Peter Mair, a professor of comparative politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "The politicians will have to be more responsive to voters now."

It was attacks on immigrants that won the tall, shaven-headed Fortuyn his notoriety. Although he railed at suggestions that he was xenophobic, he certainly exploited voter resentment of immigrants. He called for sharp curbs on new entrants and leveled harsh critiques at some of the Netherlands' immigrant communities. And he took a particularly confrontational approach to the country's Muslims. Fortuyn argued that immigrants from Islamic backgrounds tended to be poorly prepared to be productive members of modern Western societies and that it was stupid to bring large numbers of such people into Western Europe, and the Netherlands in particular. "Christianity and Judaism have gone through the process of enlightenment, making them creative and constructive elements in society," he said in one of his last interviews on May 3. "That didn't happen in Islam. There is tension between the values of modern society and the principles of Islam." He blasted Islamic culture for repressing women and making homosexuals outcasts. "I consider this scandalous and want to stop it."

While many Dutch praised Fortuyn for opening up discussion of what was long taboo, others blamed him for whipping up intercommunity tensions. Now, members of the Netherlands' large minorities worry that they will be subject to increasing discrimination and even violence. "I am very scared," says Fatima Elatik, a Labor Party alderwoman for the Amsterdam neighborhood of Zeebrugge. Elatik, who is of Moroccan descent, says she has been getting racist e-mails from a stalker ever since September 11 and that after the assassination, she got an insulting message suggesting that Fortuyn's death had made her happy.

The Netherlands has large minority communities from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles that are a legacy of its colonial empire, as well as substantial numbers of Moroccans and Turks whose families arrived as guest workers in the 1970s. The Dutch have had far greater success in melding these people into society than other countries. Unemployment runs only about 10% among minority groups.

Still, one only has to take the metro to the outskirts of Amsterdam to see that integration has only half succeeded. Along the tracks are massive, curving concrete housing projects where there are few white faces. "It really sucks here," says Valerie, a 23-year-old unemployed single mother from Curacao, who complains that her rent is too high and her apartment too small, though she acknowledges that Dutch social services foots most of her bills. Nearby, a visitor encounters a motley group of men and women avoiding the rain in the lee of a nearby building. Some are red-eyed and shaking. "This used to be a nice place," says Adwin Ramden, originally from Suriname. "But in the past 15 to 20 years, people have gotten into alcohol and taking drugs."

Moroccan youths, along with those from the Netherlands Antilles, get the blame for much of the street crime. Discussion about these issues is now remarkably frank. "Most [Moroccans] are from families from very poor backgrounds, mostly illiterate. That makes it very difficult to accommodate them in a modern society," says Paul Schnabel, director of the Social & Cultural Planning Bureau, a government think tank.

Moroccan community leaders don't dispute the allegations but say the government was slow to address deficiencies in education and other services. They also say that throwing people in prison is not the answer. Alderwoman Elatik, 28, thinks the growth of commercial television has put tremendous pressure on youths to acquire expensive shoes and mobile phones. "When I was a kid, I didn't give a [damn] if I had Nikes or not," she says. "Now, everyone wants Prada shoes."

Be that as it may, the street violence has convinced many Dutch that multiculturalism just isn't working. There is real fear about the future even at dinner conversations in middle-class homes. "If we haven't solved these problems when we were doing well, what will happen now that we may not do so well?" says Joke Mooy, a doctor.

The Dutch also wonder if their Mr. Nice Guy approach has been a big mistake. The country had long pursued the opposite of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's zero-tolerance policy. Called gedogen, the approach might be translated as tolerance of minor offenses. Under this banner are the coffeehouses with names such as Amnesia that peddle marijuana and shops that sell magic mushrooms.

The argument has been that it's a waste of police resources to pursue minor, victimless crimes. But now, passersby are accosted by scruffy "salesmen" offering ecstasy and cocaine all over Amsterdam--even in front of the royal palace. Residents say they are intimidated by such characters as well as by the gangs of young men, often from minorities, that roam the streets.

Fortuyn also appealed to entrepreneurs and others with less of a stake in the current system. "All of the politicians come from the public sector. It's a closed shop," says Arie Kraaijeveld, president of the FME-CWM, an industry group that represents engineering and metalworking companies that account for about 30% of Dutch manufacturing output. Fortuyn wanted to cut red tape and lighten taxes to encourage entrepreneurial activity.

Major company execs, though alarmed at Fortuyn's immigrant-bashing, also had a quiet admiration for his attacks on the Establishment. "I am very supportive of someone shaking up politics," says Ewald Kist, CEO of Amsterdam financial-services giant ING Group. Many Dutch execs think the ruling party is increasingly out of touch with economic matters. Corporate taxes, now 35%, are felt to be too high, and recent generous labor settlements have reduced the Netherlands' advantage over Germany. The disability system, which has a million people on its rolls, is a long-running scandal no one seems to have the will to end. With many manufacturers barely profitable, a wave of downsizing seems inevitable. Kraaijeveld estimates that 5% to 6% of the workforce in the industries he represents will be laid off in the next year. "Structural problems are not being tackled sufficiently. Confidence in the political system has been diminishing," says Kees van de Waaij, national manager for the Netherlands at Anglo-Dutch consumer-products giant Unilever Group.

Some of Fortuyn's business supporters, such as Roel Pieper, an ex-exec of Philips Electronics and Compaq are even positioning themselves for possible posts in the next government. "If [Fortuyn's party] comes in first or second, chances are they'll have to be in the government," says Pieper, now chairman of Favonius Ventures fund.

Even before Fortuyn's shocking murder, powerful undercurrents were rocking Europe. Protest votes have given new clout to hard-right candidates in Austria, France, Belgium, and Denmark. While some business execs support these movements, their real strength comes from blue-collar voters. "The lower classes feel threatened. They see their neighborhoods changing and their property values declining," says Lodewijk de Waal, president of Netherlands Trade Union Federation. Many of them may vote for Fortuyn's party on May 15 even though, for all intents and purposes, Fortuyn was the party.

What led to his fatal attack is still unclear. The police have charged Volkert van der Graaf, a 32-year-old animal rights activist with the crime. There is speculation that he feared Fortuyn would help entrepreneurs by loosening regulation of livestock farms.

Whatever the motivation, observers around the world are wondering what has gone wrong in the Netherlands. So are the Dutch. In Amsterdam's Dam Square, people gathered at a war memorial and lit candles in Fortuyn's memory. "I didn't agree with anything he said," noted graduate student Esteban Rivas. "But this is no way to treat your enemies." And it's no way to treat Europe's growing problems.

By Stanley Reed in Amsterdam

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