May 9, 2002 Posted: 1633 GMT

Protesters demonstrate outside the Dutch parliament at The Hague after the assassination of Pim Fortuyn    

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands (CNN) -- The murdered Pim Fortuyn seems to be exerting an even stronger influence over Dutch politics since his death than he did when he was alive.

Fortuyn took a tough line on immigration, and he tied politicians of other parties into knots with his flamboyant style and direct way of debating controversial topics.

Before his death, opinion pollsters suggested that Fortuyn's party, really just a vehicle for his personal views, could win 18 percent of the vote.

That would be enough to make it the third-biggest party in the Netherlands and a likely partner in any right-wing coalition government.

But since he was gunned down in a Hilversum media park, there has been an overwhelming demonstration of public grief, with floral tributes piled high in Holland's cities, silent marches and an unprecedented "lying in state" for Fortuyn's body.

Typical of the tributes from people who often did not share Fortuyn's vigorous views were cards which I read beside a monument in The Hague.

One in English read, "Pim Fortuyn -- hated by many, loved by few yet respected by all." Another in French lamented the passing of "Pim -- notre enfant terrible (Pim -- our naughty boy)."

With the politicians of other parties having agreed to suspend all campaigning until the May 15 election, Dutch analysts have suggested that the sympathy vote could see Fortuyn's party emerge with the biggest number of seats, causing an astonishing political upheaval.

Voters are still in a state of shock, finding it hard to get their political bearings after an act so uncharacteristic of the peaceful, not to mention rather dull, style of normal Dutch politics.
Flowers and stuffed bears are among the tributes left for Fortuyn in the Netherlands. One woman told me: "Suddenly I am a ashamed of my country because we used to be such a nice, funny country, and I don't know if we'll ever be that again."

Dutch politicians saw little alternative to letting the election go ahead when Fortuyn campaigners insisted it should. They now hope voters will separate their natural grief from their political views and cast their ballots as they would have before Fortuyn's killing.

But with opinion polls banned too, nobody knows what will happen.

Protest mood
Dutch party leaders are well aware that electorates across Europe have been in a mood to indulge protest votes against mainstream parties, which are seen as being dominated by technocrats and increasingly remote from people's lives.

We saw it with the first-round success of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential contest.

We saw it with the latest local elections in Britain, where right-wing extremists of the British National Party won a handful of seats, and a man campaigning in a monkey suit was elected mayor on a platform of giving the town's children free bananas.
Mourners filed past Fortuyn's open coffin in a "lying in state" style ceremony virtually unheard of in the Netherlands    
Now the Dutch have the ultimate opportunity for a protest vote by supporting the party of a murdered politician whose name remains on the ballot.

But if Fortuyn's party does make a huge advance, it should not necessarily be seen as a further triumph for the extreme-right agenda across Europe.

Fortuyn was careful to dissociate himself from Le Pen, whose anti-Semitic utterances and homophobia he detested. And he only had so much in common with other right-wingers like Jorg Haider in Austria, Umberto Bossi in Italy, Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark and Filip Dewinter in Belgium. Like them, he took a tough line on the European Union and especially on immigration.

Fortuyn insisted that Holland was "full up," and he wanted a stop to further arrivals -- particularly from the Muslim world. Controversially, he criticised Islamic culture as "backward" and condemned the failure of Muslims to assimilate with homegrown Dutch.

Maverick, not racist
But Fortuyn was a maverick populist, not a racist or an identikit extreme rightist.

His party contains a number of black supporters, and Fortuyn backed efforts to help immigrants already in Holland to integrate. The openly gay Fortuyn's objections to Muslim culture were based partly on what he saw as their subjugation of women and lack of tolerance of homosexuals.

The reason why Fortuyn's death has been felt so keenly in Holland -- and why he has been mourned by people of all colours and creeds -- is that he was seen as a politician who talked with a directness that the career politicians lack and tackled issues which others tend to cloak in subdued tones of political correctness.

Fortuyn won followers for his openness and direct style of addressing issues.

People liked the shaven-headed dandy's wit and style. They also responded to his openness in an age when politicians have tended to become safety-first clones careful to upset the minimum number of people in their attempts to occupy the normally profitable middle ground of politics.

Fortuyn's popularity also had to do with the failure of others to speak the language of the bus queue and saloon bar -- a failing that was evident in the first-round French presidential campaigns of Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac.

Of course, there were and are racists and extremists who supported Fortuyn and his party as the nearest thing available to their views on the Dutch political scene. The skinhead riots in The Hague on the night of his death bear witness to that.

Fortuyn's insistence on not being bracketed with Haider and Le Pen had a tactical element to it as well.

But if Fortuyn's party does achieve a temporary triumph in the Dutch election, the result should not be hailed as yet more evidence of the march across Europe of the extreme right.

It will be a sympathy vote for a true character who shook up a staid political scene -- and yet another warning to mainstream politicians that they must rediscover ways of reconnecting with the people.

The established parties need to be able to discuss the issues which matter to people's daily lives in a language they understand. That was Fortuyn's gift, and it might yet be his legacy.