Fortuyn, Pim

views updated

Pim Fortuyn

The Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002) altered the terms of political debate in his country during his short career in the electoral arena, which ended with his assassination in May of 2002. His murder was, in the words of London's Daily Telegraph, “the most prominent political assassination in the Netherlands since that of William the Silent in 1584.”

Fortuyn defied traditional political classifications, and his maverick ways were part of his appeal. His strong stance against immigration to the Netherlands by foreigners, which historically has come mostly from predominantly Islamic countries, caused political observers to group him with other European politicians who had spearheaded far-right political movements based on strongly nationalist sentiments and mistrust of foreigners. But Fortuyn, who rejected such comparisons, did not fit the far-right mold. He was openly gay, and many of the values he championed in Dutch culture, including full rights for homosexuals, were contrary to those of many anti-immigration parties in other countries. Fortuyn aroused strong opinions among the Dutch populace, with some calling him a neo-fascist while others hailed him for overturning a stagnant political system and stirring up useful debate about the country's future.

Born into Religious Family

Wilhelmus Simon Petrus Fortuyn, nicknamed Pim, was born on February 19, 1948, in the small city of Velsen in northwestern Holland. His father was a salesman, his mother a housewife, and the family, adherents of the Roman Catholic faith, attended mass regularly. Even though he led a flamboyant lifestyle later in his life, stating that he preferred gay bars to the inside of a church, Fortuyn never rejected his identification with Catholicism. According to an article by Roger Boyes in the London Times following the assassination, Catholic priest Father Louis Berger, to whom Fortuyn went for confession, characterized him as “a religious man with a warm heart who cared about vulnerable people.” Fortuyn was a talented student who was quickly marked for university studies. Another major aspect of his life, the realization of his homosexuality, was also set in place early, after he had a relationship with another altar boy at the church his family attended.

Fortuyn enrolled at the Universiteit Nyenrode (the Netherlands Business School) in Breukelen, graduating in 1970 after studying history, sociology, law, and economics. He moved on to the University of Amsterdam for graduate study, and when he entered into the liberated life of the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, he soon felt freer to express his sexuality. According to Boyes, Fortuyn described himself as a “self-proclaimed homosexual, more feminine than every woman in the Cabinet, an aesthete and grass roots democrat, a desperado, a Dadaist with a skull of a gladiator.” He became involved near the end of a period of left-wing student activism in Amsterdam, and rejected the conservative beliefs of his parents in favor of the writings of Communist philosopher Karl Marx, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung.

Embarking on a series of advanced degrees that seemed designed to lead toward an academic position in the Dutch university system, Fortuyn received a doctorate (comparable to a master's degree in the United States) in sociology from the University of Amsterdam in 1971. He then enrolled at the University of Groningen, working as a lecturer in Marxist theory and writing a Ph.D. thesis on economic development in the Netherlands after World War II. He received a degree at Groningen in 1980. Joining the Dutch Labor Party, a center-left party that had enjoyed a long dominant role in the nation's affairs, Fortuyn spent the 1980s in research posts with the Dutch government, working on education and railway policy issues.

In 1990 he landed a job as a professor at Erasmus Universiteit (Erasmus University) in Rotterdam. As a teacher, Fortuyn was a skillful showman who was popular with students. But his off-the-cuff style did not always sit well with his colleagues, and all through his life he had a tendency to antagonize his employers to a point where his position was in jeopardy—a tendency his friends referred to as Fortuyn's Law. He left Erasmus University in 1995, having already put in place the next stage of his career. In 1992 he formed a political consulting firm called Fortuyn BV and began a successful stint as a lecturer, commanding fees of some $500 for a single appearance. He also began writing a column for the magazine Elsevier. These occupations proved lucrative, and Fortuyn began to adopt a swank personal style.

Swung Strongly in Conservative Direction

By this time, Fortuyn had abandoned his Marxist beliefs and turned strongly in the direction of free-market conservatism. He had also begun to identify immigration as a key issue in Dutch politics, although criticism of immigrants and their values was mostly considered taboo in Dutch society. In Rotterdam Fortuyn found himself at the epicenter of a brewing controversy: in the Netherlands as a whole (as of 2002), Turks and Moroccans, the largest immigrant groups, made up only 6 percent of the population, but in the industrial city of Rotterdam the figure was 30 percent. Social services were strained by the large number of newcomers, who did not always learn the Dutch language, and the crime rate rose. In 1997 Fortuyn published a book, Against the Islamicization of Our Culture.

In the summer of 2001 Fortuyn joined the small Leefbar Nederland (Livable Netherlands) party, which had its greatest strength in Rotterdam. His initial intention was to stir up the political world by provoking debate. From the start he showed an ability to galvanize a crowd, and he was quickly named the party's leader. Just as quickly, controversy broke out over Fortuyn's often incendiary statements. He called for a temporary shutdown in immigration to the Netherlands, saying (all quotations appeared in London's Independent), “Full is full, and you can't mop the floor while the tap is running.” He commented that “in Holland, homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does that happen?” (The Netherlands legalized gay marriage in 2001.) Fortuyn cast himself as a defender of free speech. After a fundamentalist Islamic imam condemned homosexuals as a life form lower than pigs, Fortuyn said, “An imam should be able to say about me that homosexuals are worse than pigs. My only demand is that you mustn't incite violence.”

Fortuyn did not fit the traditional image of a Dutch politician. The Netherlands had long been governed by a group of centrist parties known as the purple coalition, with officeholders generally being career politicians who had painstakingly worked their way up through the various party hierarchies. Fortuyn, by contrast, thrived on making headlines. He was a flamboyant figure who was chauffeured in a luxury German limousine adorned with an elaborate but imaginary Fortuyn family coat of arms, usually accompanied by a pair of King Charles spaniels named Kenneth and Carla. To the charge that he was a racist, Fortuyn rejoined that young Arab men were among his numerous lovers.

All this was anathema, even to the right-wing leadership of Livable Netherlands, and by the end of 2001 Fortuyn had been asked to leave the party. By that time, however, he was at a stage where publicity only magnified his success. “He was a genius performer, a pop-star kind of populist,” Dutch journalist Hans Wansink told Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker. Fortuyn quickly announced that he was forming a party of his own, the immodestly named Lijst (List) Pim Fortuyn. Moderating some of his stands when challenged, but sticking to others, such as requiring immigrants to learn Dutch, Fortuyn became internationally known in the first months of 2002. Supportive of Jews in general and the state of Israel in particular, he denied any connection with other European right-wing leaders, such as France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria's Jörg Haider, whose rhetoric sometimes had anti-Semitic overtones. Second in command in the Lijst Pim Fortuyn was a Dutch citizen of African descent, Cape Verde native João Varela. Other List candidates included a chauffeur, several students, a former beauty queen, and an Internet pornography entrepreneur.

Party Notched Startling Results

Fortuyn confidently predicted that the Dutch parliamentary elections of 2002 would culminate in his selection as prime minister, but few observers took the boast seriously. That changed in March of 2002, when the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, emphasizing anti-crime and anti-immigration rhetoric, won municipal elections in Rotterdam, ending the 80-year rule of the Dutch Labor Party. Suddenly polls suggested that Fortuyn's party was running neck and neck with more established parties, and that Fortuyn could hold the balance of power in determining the next prime minister—or might even become prime minister himself.

Protests against Fortuyn turned ugly. The politician needed a police escort to make it to the polls in Rotterdam, and he was hit by urine-soaked cream pies while making a speech. After receiving death threats, he told friends about an upsetting visit he had made to a fortune teller two years before. “Now I think I will tell you what the fortune-teller said. She told me that I would end up in an ugly way,” Fortuyn was quoted as saying in Newsweek International.

The prophecy proved accurate. On May 6, 2002, as he was leaving a radio interview in the Amsterdam suburb of Hilversum, Fortuyn was shot five times in the head and chest. Police arrested animal-rights activist Volkert van der Graaf, who later confessed to the crime and was convicted of Fortuyn's murder, but given only an 18-year prison sentence. Immigrant Netherlanders were initially relieved that Fortuyn's killer had not emerged from among their ranks, and police were confused as to the assassin's motives: Fortuyn, although he had made general statements opposing Holland's environmental movement, had not specifically addressed the issue of animal rights. Van de Graaf's 2003 trial reopened tensions when he asserted that he had killed Fortuyn in an attempt to protect Dutch Muslims. “I could see no other option than to do what I did,” he was quoted as saying in the Independent. Muslims in the Netherlands were being used as “scapegoats,” and he “saw it as a danger, but what should you do about it? I hoped that I could solve it myself.”

Fortuyn's influence in the Netherlands manifested itself in forms beyond the statue that was erected in Rotterdam in his honor. The Lijst Pim Fortuyn won 28 seats in the Dutch parliament and became part of the Dutch government in a coalition with the Christian Democratic Party in the elections of May 15, 2002, despite the death of its founder. Without the charismatic Fortuyn at the helm, the party was soon weakened by internal disagreements. More important was that several of Fortuyn's positions, once considered extreme, had become part of the political mainstream by the next cycle of national elections in 2006. A ban on the Islamic head covering for women called the burqa was in the works. Enrollment in Dutch language classes was made compulsory for new immigrants, and restrictions were placed on family reunification as a justification for entry into the country. In late 2006, David Charter of the London Times wrote that “an uncompromising approach towards immigration has become the new orthodoxy in a country known for its tolerant social attitudes.” That change was largely Fortuyn's handiwork.


Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 7, 2002; May 8, 2002; May 24, 2003.

Economist, November 30, 2002.

Europe, May 2002.

Global Agenda, May 16, 2002.

Guardian (London, England), May 8, 2002; April 16, 2003.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), May 11, 2002.

Independent (London, England), May 7, 2002; March 28, 2003.

Irish Times, May 19, 2003.

New York Times, May 14, 2002.

New Yorker, September 9, 2002.

Newsweek International, May 20, 2002.

Times (London, England), May 8, 2002; November 21, 2006.


Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2002, (November 12, 2007).