The assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn is a wakeup call to the citizens of Europe. Coming only days after the defeat of rightwing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff for the French presidency last weekend, the killing is a savage reminder of the threats to democracy in Europe. The Dutch government has decided not to bow to intolerance and is going ahead with the general election scheduled for next week. That is the right decision. There is no place for such barbarism in politics. Europe, the birthplace of democracy, must reassert the importance of the peaceful resolution of political disputes.
Mr. Fortuyn was a relative newcomer to Dutch politics. A former academic and media commentator, he stunned the political order in the Netherlands when his party, Pim Fortuyn’s List (PFM), won 35 percent of the votes cast in local elections in the city of Rotterdam last year. The PFM was anticipated to challenge the country’s mainstream parties in next week’s ballot.
The circumstances behind Mr. Fortuyn’s murder are not what many would expect. He had provoked the animosity of many in the Netherlands — not because he was an openly gay politician, but because he was a rightwing populist. Mr. Fortuyn urged cutting the government bureaucracy by 25 percent and upending the arrangement in which the three leading parties had dominated Dutch politics. The suspect arrested in the killing is a Dutch man who worked for Environmental Offensive, an organization that focused on environmental issues.
The killing has stunned the citizens of the Netherlands. The country is famous for its tolerance — prostitution is legal, soft drugs are available and euthanasia has been legalized. Ethnic minorities make up over 10 percent of the population, and those numbers are expected to continue to grow. Indeed, that increase was the fuel behind Mr. Fortuyn’s rise: His first priority was changing the open-door policy that allowed large numbers of immigrants to enter the Netherlands, a platform that appealed to a significant portion of the electorate.
On one hand, Mr. Fortuyn’s success is difficult to understand. The economy has marked steady, impressive growth for more than two decades. Unemployment is less than 2 percent, the lowest level among industrialized states. The government enjoys a budget surplus, and national debt has declined by one-third in the last 14 years. There has been no unrest, and the Netherlands is usually held out as the model of a successful, multiracial state.
Yet the issues that Mr. Fortuyn championed are the same as those that Mr. Le Pen used to galvanize the French electorate: fear of immigrants, worries about rising crime and questions about national identity. Those concerns have surfaced throughout Europe and lie behind the resurgence of rightwing politics across the continent. It is estimated that about 5 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim; just under 9 percent of German residents were born outside of Germany; and nearly one resident in five in France is of non-French descent.
Those figures, and the worries about national identity that they have sparked, explain the success of rightwing parties across Europe: not only in France and the Netherlands, but also in Italy, Austria and Denmark, where the government this week agreed on a bill to restrict immigration. Europe has faced an influx of immigrants in the past decade, not only from the south, but also from the east, as the Cold War barriers to the movement of people have come down. The result has been growing unemployment in many countries and communities, especially those areas that have been forced to accommodate increasing numbers of foreigners.
The difficulties have been compounded by a failure on the part of the established political order to address the basic issues raised by these immigrants. Politicians have been more interested in safeguarding their perquisites and prerogatives. They have offered bland reassurances in the face of rising concerns about crime and national identity in an era of globalization. The unwillingness to move beyond the confines of established political discourse has left the field to men like Mr. Le Pen who have not been reluctant to set the terms of debate. That explains Mr. Le Pen’s success in France’s recent elections, as well as the groundswell of support that Mr. Fortuyn was riding until his assassination.
Mr. Fortuyn’s message may have been disagreeable to many, but the only response to his platform should have been the ballot, not the bullet. The assassination of Mr. Fortuyn serves as a grim reminder that intolerance is not the sole province of the right. Some would consider it ironic that a man who called for less tolerance would be a victim of intolerance. They are wrong: It is a tragedy and a disgrace.
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