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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 01:24 GMT 02:24 UK
Holland steps into the unknown
flowers are laid at the grave of Pim Fortuyn
Emotion has dominated the run-up to the poll
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By Angus Roxburgh
BBC Europe correspondent in The Hague

The Netherlands goes to the polls on Wednesday for the strangest election in its history.

A country used to being ruled by consensus may find itself in uncharted territory, having to accommodate views that are alien to the centre-ground

Since the murder last week of the right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn, the country has been in shock. Election campaigning was cancelled, leaving Dutch people to make up their minds in a vacuum dominated not by politics but by emotions.

The chief question on everybody's mind is this: will the Pim Fortuyn List, now minus its colourful leader, fare less well?

Or will it gain a massive sympathy vote, turning the election - as some commentators have put it - into a giant condolence book for Fortuyn?

New party

The mainstream parties, who for decades have dominated Dutch politics, know they may be faced with an unprecedented situation - having to share power with a party regarded as extreme and outside the normal ambit of West European democratic politics.

Pim Fortuyn
Pim Fortuyn's murder caused widespread shock
A party, moreover, which consists largely of political novices, none of whom has ever sat in parliament before.

The system of proportional representation has for many years ensured that no single party has dominated the Dutch parliament.

Governments are always coalitions, often formed only after several weeks of negotiation following an election.

Queen Beatrix will ask the leader of the largest party to form a government once the result is clear.

Power-sharing tradition

The current coalition, which has governed since 1994, was made up of the social democratic Labour Party (PvdA), led by Prime Minister Wim Kok, which had 45 of parliament's 150 seats.

Its partners were the liberal VVD, with 38 seats, and the centre-left liberal party D66, which had 14 seats.

The other chief parties are the Christian Democrats (CDA), with 29 seats in parliament, and the environmentalist Greens, with 11.

Wim Kok
Current Prime Minister Wim Kok had already decided to step down
Until the rise of Pim Fortuyn's party, which took a third of the vote in March elections for Rotterdam city council, it had seemed a foregone conclusion that the present coalition, or one fairly similar to it, would continue in power - albeit without Wim Kok at its head. He had already declared his intention of standing down.

Labour's leader now is Ad Melkert, and it is he who will be invited first to form a government if his party does best.

Sympathy vote

But if a sympathy vote does sweep Pim Fortuyn's anti-immigration party into a commanding position, then it could be its newly chosen chairman, Peter Langendam, or whoever emerges as Fortuyn's ultimate successor, who could either try to form a government or be in a powerful position as "kingmaker", holding the balance of power.

Bringing a party variously branded as far-right or populist into government would break the decades-long Dutch tradition of centrist, moderate government.

What input these political newcomers might have is not clear - other than Fortuyn, their identities were scarcely known, far less their political abilities or stances.

So Holland is stepping towards the unknown. A country used to being ruled by consensus may find itself in uncharted territory, having to accommodate views that are alien to the centre-ground.

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