Why you should care
Because this man’s successor, Geert Wilders, is up for election this month.
It was nine days before the general election, and a charismatic far-right leader was on course for a historic showing at the polls. Fifty-four-year-old Pim Fortuyn had been in electoral politics in the Netherlands for just six months, but he was drawing huge support from both the left and the right, as well as many who had never voted before. And then, while walking back to his car after a radio interview in a town near Amsterdam, the bald, besuited populist was shot six times and died at the scene.
Fortuyn’s assassination rocked the 2002 election — other candidates halted campaigning, riots broke out and conspiracy theories abounded. After it was decided that the election should continue, Fortuyn’s name had to remain on the ballots according to Dutch law. His party came in second, winning 26 seats in the House of Representatives, becoming part of a short-lived governing coalition. Headed by a dead man, the Pim Fortuyn List posted the best-ever performance by a novice party.
There would be no Geert Wilders without Pim Fortuyn.
“He was seen almost in a religious way by his supporters as the man who finally represented the people,” says Jean Tillie, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. Fortuyn’s politics centered upon his rejection of multiculturalism; he called Islam a “backward” culture and questioned the role of Muslims in Dutch society. Unsurprisingly, his views drew adulation and an equal measure of hatred: Shortly before his assassination, Fortuyn was hit in the face by urine-laced cream pies, and he had publicly declared his fear of being killed by those accusing him of racism. Indeed, his assassin admitted in court that he had acted to prevent the scapegoating of Muslims.
An eccentric homosexual — he was “a hedonistic, Oscar Wilde type of man,” says Tillie — Fortuyn drew his position on immigration from his belief that Islam was at odds with gay rights in the famously socially liberal Netherlands (the first country to legalize gay marriage and euthanasia, and with regulated prostitution and marijuana).
Despite his being labeled a far-right populist, Fortuyn’s political pedigree actually came from the radical left — he had initially been barred from joining the Communist Party for his controversial views. He was a strong proponent of the welfare state but wanted it restricted to those of Dutch blood. His comments were too controversial even for the far-right Leefbaar Nederland (Livable Netherlands) party, which kicked Fortuyn out as leader just 12 weeks after he led it to an astonishing victory in municipal elections in Rotterdam, unseating the PvdA (Labor Party) for the first time since World War II.
Only by starting his own cult-of-personality party did Fortuyn manage to avoid alienating colleagues. “Nobody believed that he would be successful in going it alone,” says Meindert Fennema, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Amsterdam, “but he was.” He had a Trump-like personality, says Fennema. “He was very charismatic and extraordinarily witty.… He destroyed his opponents in debates.” In one televised debate between Fortuyn and a prominent imam, he was accused of not knowing any Muslims. “I don’t hate Arab men,” Fortuyn retorted, “I even sleep with them!”
Fortuyn single-handedly changed the face of the far right in the Netherlands and across Europe by detaching it from its strictly fascist legacy. Before him, anti-immigrant parties were also homophobic, anti-feminist and often anti-Semitic, but for Fortuyn, there was just one enemy: Islam. “The traditional anti-fascist discourse didn’t fit,” says Fennema, so when opponents labeled Fortuyn a racist, it often backfired. “He wasn’t that kind of person — he came from the left — and so the whole concept of him being a fascist was not very convincing,” Fennema explains. Fortuyn’s embrace of gay rights and women’s rights, as well as left-wing economic positions, as part of his populist discourse has since been replicated by his countryman Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen, who have also zeroed in on an additional enemy: the European Union.
Despite the wild success of Fortuyn’s party in the 2002 election, political infighting caused it to essentially disintegrate. Leefbaar Rotterdam, though, remains a dominant political force in the country’s second-largest city, and is still known informally as the Pim Fortuyn party. Wilders, though never a member of any of Fortuyn’s parties, is now his electoral successor. After being expelled from the center-right VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) in 2004, Wilders created his own Party for Freedom — a one-man party, in true Fortuyn-esque fashion — which many expect to make substantial gains in the March 15 general election. But Wilders, who has pledged to close the Dutch borders, close mosques and leave the EU if he gains power, has more extreme positions than Fortuyn, who had advocated for an amnesty for asylum seekers before reforming immigration and integration policies. Wilders has had constant security protection since 2004 because of the frequent threats to his life.
“I’m sure there would be no Geert Wilders without Pim Fortuyn,” says Marco Pastors, a former friend and colleague of Fortuyn and his successor as party leader. Fifteen years after his murder, “there’s still a lot of Pim Fortuyn in Dutch politics today.”