As though a bolt of lightning had illuminated a previously unseen landscape—tense with frustration and social resentment—the general elections of May 2002 revealed the prosperous, liberal-minded Netherlands in a harsh new glare. The shock of a political murder, and the entry into government of a newly hatched political party with a radical anti-immigration programme, precipitated a year of turbulence in Dutch politics from which the country has emerged shaken, if not stirred. The aim of this article is to examine the underlying dynamics of this histrionic irruption, and to consider what its longer term effects might be. We will start, however, with an account of the outsider candidate, before going on to examine the socio-economic changes that two decades of neoliberal restructuring have wrought on the Dutch ‘polder’ model, and the ways in which these have affected the political system.

Media reports have described Pim Fortuyn as an outsider but he was, in fact, very much a part of the Dutch political class and had many supporters in establishment circles. Born in 1948 to a conservative Catholic family in Velsen, in the northwest of the country, Fortuyn was active in the student movement of the 1960s and worked as a lecturer/reader on (Marxian) sociology at the University of Groningen from 1972 until 1988; his doctoral thesis focused on ‘Social and Economic Policies in the Netherlands, 1945–49’. In 1988 he quit Groningen to set up his own ‘consultancy’ in Rotterdam, producing a string of books and articles on society and politics while making a name for himself as a flamboyant maverick, columnist and guest speaker; meanwhile retaining for some years a part-time chair in sociology at Erasmus University. His targets were the bureaucracy—always an easy one—as signalled in his 1991 A Future Without Civil Servants; and he developed, from the mid-90s onwards, a seemingly more iconoclastic anti-immigrant stance, laid out in 1997 in his Against the Islamization of Our Culture.

Nevertheless—despite the media coverage—Fortuyn’s political career was markedly unsuccessful until November 2001, when he was appointed leader of a small but fairly dynamic populist party, Leefbaar Nederland—leefbaar is liveable, in Dutch—with a strong base in local city councils. The four months of his tenure there were marked by internal conflict. Fortuyn’s attacks on Islam as ‘an extremely backward culture’ and his Le Pen-ite assertion that ‘The Netherlands are full’ were ill received by the majority faction of libertarian-green multiculturalists within Leefbaar Nederland, and in February 2002 Fortuyn was thrown out.

The following month, financed by rich friends in the business community—real-estate agents and property developers, in particular—he started his own party: Lijst Pim Fortuyn. The LPF had no centre other than its charismatic, anti-Islamic leader; and the neo-populist themes that he bequeathed to it.footnote1 First among these was the anti-establishment pose—lambasting the parties of government for their backroom dealings and lack of ideological clarity, as well as their inability to reduce crime and solve problems that everyone recognized in health care, education and transport. According to Fortuyn, the trouble with these public services was excessive bureaucracy: public provision could be mightily improved by firing a quarter of the civil servants. Running government as a private business would deliver far more, without requiring any additional tax funding; and could be made much more accountable. Fortuyn pledged to include ‘successful captains of industry’ in his LPF government. Secondly, Fortuyn argued forcefully for the superiority of the Enlightenment norms and values of Western civilization, here extended to include sexual tolerance. The actual experience of the Islamic world in this regard was naturally ignored in favour of random quotation from the most barren neo-fundamentalist preaching; which, in turn, was used as evidence that non-Western societies, Muslim ones in particular, were inferior to the West in both civilization and culture.

The implication for immigrants to the Netherlands was that all adjustment should come from their side. What are the facts here? Immigrants make up just under 17 per cent of the Netherlands’ total population of 16 million—around 2.7 million altogether. Of these, first and second-generation Islamic migrants—mainly from Turkey and Morocco—make up just over 670,000, or 4.3 per cent of the total population. Another 729,000 immigrants, 4.5 per cent of the total population, originate from other EU countries, while some 810,000, 5 per cent of the total, come from former Dutch colonies, mainly Surinam and Indonesia. As in much of Western Europe, the majority of non-Western immigrants are city dwellers, constituting around 30 per cent of the populations of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague; of these, just under half would be Muslims, whose forebears come from a variety of countries. Unemployment rates for non-Western immigrants are high—9 per cent, compared to 3 per cent for non-migrants in 1999. The proportion of low-income households is roughly 3 times higher than the norm, and average real income is some 25 per cent lower than that of non-immigrants. They are significantly under-represented in higher education and over-represented in school drop-out rates. Within the non-Western immigrant population, the socio-economic position of Muslims tends to be the worst.footnote2