Far right comes second in Dutch poll

Pim Fortuyn, the murdered Dutch anti-immigrant politician, reached out from the grave this week to capture joint-second place in his country’s general election as the ruling Labour Party suffered a humiliating meltdown, according to the exit polls.

The polls, published minutes after voting ended, showed the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) with 24 seats compared to a triumphant 41 for the opposition Christian Democrat party (CDA), which is likely to lead a new coalition and confirm a drift to the right across Europe.

Labour also got 24 seats, down from 45 at the 1998 poll.

Ad Melkert, the Labour leader, was expected to concede defeat after high voter turnout attributed to fury and sympathy generated by Fortuyn’s assassination - allegedly by an environmental activist - 10 days ago.

Jan Peter Balkenende, the little-known CDA leader, was facing complex choices for building a coalition, a process that could take weeks. He is thought most likely to try to form a government with the LPF and the free market VVD liberals, who are also projected to get 24 seats in the 150-member Parliament. Analysts said it was unlikely he would seek a grand coalition with Labour.

Crowds were still gathered outside the gay populist’s home in central Rotterdam as polling got under way, with withered bunches of flowers piled in the courtyard and messages of support taped to the railings.

Wim Kok, the outgoing Labour Prime Minister, urged voters to choose “sensibly”, reminding them of eight years of the “formidable” growth and prosperity created by his three-party centre-left coalition.

But support for Labour fell away as polls showed mounting public irritation over hospital waiting lists, train delays, traffic congestion, crime and cash-strapped schools.

With Dutch pundits calling the election the most unpredictable in living memory, it had been clear since May 6, when the maverick Fortuyn was killed, that his ghostly presence would dominate the day.

The flamboyant Fortuyn fuelled worries across Europe that racism and xenophobia - behind Jean-Marie le Pen’s startling performance in the first round of the French presidential election - had been transferred to the placid and tolerant Netherlands.

But Fortuyn, who derided Islam as backward, questioned multiculturalism and wanted immigration to The Netherlands controlled, angrily rejected comparisons with far-right leaders such as Le Pen and Austria’s Jörg Haider.

Many Dutchmen, even those who opposed him, view his contribution as having shaken up remote and complacent politicians accustomed to the country’s consensus-building.

Analysts said that one of the biggest questions about Fortuyn’s fledgling party was whether it would be able to replicate its 37% success in Rotterdam on a national scale. Another is whether Fortuyn’s colleagues - novices who lack his charisma and profile - can stay together.

On the eve of the poll, the party’s newly elected chairperson resigned after causing an uproar when he blamed the government for creating an atmosphere of hatred that led to the death of “Professor Pim”. If the LPF splits it could mean political instability and new elections well before the government’s four-year term is up.

The result means Dutch voters have followed the pattern of Italy, France, Denmark and Portugal, which have also shifted to the right, punishing the left for failing to heed fears on crime and immigration.

Kok’s government resigned last month after accepting the blame for the botched 1995 Dutch United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

One clear result of Fortuyn’s assassination was clear on Wednesday when senior politicians were accompanied by bodyguards as they cast their ballots.

Dutch media described the election as being held in an atmosphere of unprecedented crisis.

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