Ten years ago today the Netherlands was stunned by the murder of Pim Fortuyn. The image of the tall, fit, flamboyant and charismatic politician lying lifeless on the pavement is etched into public memory. His death - and his life - marked a turning point in the nation’s history.
During his brief political career, Pim Fortuyn ushered in a new era, tapping into a deeply felt dissatisfaction with the status quo. He was the first Dutch politician to speak critically about immigration and to condemn Islam.
Pim Fortuyn was born 1948, the third of six children in a strict Roman Catholic family. He wanted to become a priest, but ended up pursuing a career teaching and writing before turning to politics. Originally a supporter of communism, Fortuyn later joined the Labour Party before enentually turning to the right-of-centre VVD in the early 1990s. But he was always an iconoclast, and when Fortuyn finally took to the political stage himself, it was as leader of a nascent party called Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands).
But, true to character, Fortuyn was not willing to compromise his views to match those of the young party, and was deposed as leader within a few months. On the 11th of February 2002, just three months prior to national elections, Fortuyn announced the formation of his own party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF - Pim Fortuyn's List).
During the ensuing national campaign, Fortuyn was doing so well that some polls predicted his LPF could become the largest party in parliament, giving him the chance to become prime minister.
He was a controversial as well as a popular figure. He called Islam a ‘backward culture’ and said Christians in the Netherlands had more rights, morally, than Muslims did. He advocated scrapping the ban on discrimination enshrined in the first amendment of the Dutch constitution.
But he was also against many of the reforms of the 90s such as privatisation and new, technocratic management styles.
Many saw him as a rabble-rouser comparable to extreme right figures around Europe, including Austrian Jorg Haider and Frenchman Jean Marie Le Pen. But Fortuyn’s open homosexuality, his flamboyant lifestyle and his often playful manner complicated that picture. He himself fervently denied any association with the far right.
Then, on May 6th, Fortuyn was shot and killed in the car park of public broadcaster NOS. His killer was apprehended within minutes and police rushed to publish a description of the man. He was not Muslim, as many at first suspected. Volkert van de Graaf was a white Dutch environmental activist.
Just nine days later, his party managed something unprecedented in Dutch politics. In its maiden elections, the LPF became the second largest party, surpassing both the Labour Party and the VVD.
But the success - and the party - was short-lived. The LPF joined a coalition government which collapsed within the year due to infighting. The party lost most of its seats in the ensuing election and was disbanded within six years.
But Pim Fortuyn’s ideas have fundamentally changed the shape of Dutch politics. He gave voice to an entire class of voters who felt disenfranchised by the established political order. He opened a vein of populism in the Dutch body politic, the same vein Geert Wilders has so successfully tapped since.
Dutch politics since Pim Fortuyn has been characterised by instability. In the ten years since his death, the Netherlands has had five different governments. The three main parties (Labour, Christian Democrats and VVD) have lost their traditional dominance of parliament. Populist parties led by Rita Verdonk (Trots op Nederland - PON - Proud of the Netherlands) and Geert Wilders (Partij van de Vrijheid - PVV - Freedom Party) have emerged.
Since Pim Fortuyn, the most radical developments in Dutch politics have come from the right, not the left. The political agenda has been set by the right of centre, as the Netherlands turns away from the policies of tolerance established in the 1960s and 1970s.
6 May, 2002, was a watershed moment and, as the Netherlands enters the eleventh year of the post-Fortuyn era, his legacy lives on.