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Gay right-winger roils Dutch politics

Pim Fortuyn concedes he is a full-time agitator, proud of being gay and equally proud, it seems, of being an irreverent intellectual who openly derides Muslim immigrants as backward.

But he flies into a rage when people call him a new Mussolini or the Dutch equivalent of the Austrian right-wing politician Joerg Haider.

"They are trying to make a demon out of me _ I'm no fascist or racist," he said. "It's outrageous. Obviously, as a homosexual I know about prejudice. And Rotterdam is an international city, it's the biggest port in the world."

Fortuyn, once a professor of sociology with Marxist views, has become the most hotly debated Dutch politician since he and his followers won 36 percent of the vote in municipal elections this month in Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second largest city.

It was the first run for office by "Professor Pim," as his supporters call him, and now he says he wants to become prime minister when national elections are held in May.

His shaved head, his big, colorful ties and matching kerchiefs, are everywhere, on the covers of magazines, on newscasts and talk shows. So is his message: anti-big-government, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare and pro-law-and-order.

This message bears striking similarities to those offered by Haider and other right-wingers across Europe. Fortuyn delivers his with a passion and a hard edge that are nearly revolutionary in the liberal Netherlands.

Over the past weeks, while mocking the "self-important political elite," he has provoked hoots of laughter with wit and theatrical gestures and deeply unnerved the calm, collegial world of Dutch politics. Polls predict that he could get 20 percent of the vote, and the traditional parties of the right-to-left coalition government are searching for tactics to block him.

Fortuyn's ideas have stepped up the once low-key debate about immigration, racism and anti-Muslim sentiments, long taboo in the Netherlands.

These views have, however, also got him into trouble. In February, he was fired as the leader of the new party Livable Netherlands for slurring Islam and for proposing that a constitutional clause banning discrimination should be scrapped. He ran on a separate platform called Livable Rotterdam.

The finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, has no doubt what to make of Fortuyn. "He is a dangerous man. He deceives voters with promises that are not financially possible."

Fortuyn appears to exult in his rise to fame. Asked in an interview if he had expected such success, the 54-year-old political showman raised a glass of rose and replied: "Not in my wildest dreams." This was, after all, Rotterdam, home of dockworkers, shipping magnates, secretaries and truck drivers, a place with a reputation for sober, hard-working people. The Labor Party had dominated here for fifty years. How could this gritty port now back a right-wing academic?

The answer, opinion polls show, is that Rotterdammers are fed up with eroding health care, public schools, crime and street violence. For all of this, they appear largely to blame gangs of immigrants from Morocco, Turkey and the Caribbean. So do the police. Of Rotterdam's 540,000 people, 45 percent are not of Dutch descent, city officials said.

At City Hall, officials have been analyzing the vote and said it did not appear to be simply extremist or xenophobic. "It's a lot more complex," said Michael Sijbom, a city official. "In one mosque with voting booths, 20 percent of the ballots went to Fortuyn."

Fortuyn's voters appear to be as eclectic as his ideas. They include businessmen and financial backers who applaud his plans to cut back the bloated welfare state.

At the Anders bakery here, Sjaan Meuldijk said she had been assaulted six times recently. "Pim tells it like it is," she said. "He says a lot of things out loud that other people only dare say in private." On Molen Street, where many immigrants live, two Turkish women said they had voted for the "professor" because their neighborhood had become dangerous because of newcomers.

At Shaft, Leather and Jeans, a gay bar where Fortuyn used to be a regular, the owner, Ben Houterman, laughed. "Of course most of my clients voted for the prof. His ideas about what's wrong are crystal clear."

Last week, Fortuyn set out those ideas in a new book that became an instant bestseller. In the interview, he said the book was his political platform. He wants mayors to be elected _ not appointed as they are now. He wants to reintroduce conscription and curb immigration. "The country is full up," he said, noting that the 16-million residents of the Netherlands already live in Europe's most densely populated country.

"We have to slow down and take stock," he said. "Too much pressure has built up."

He asserted that Asian immigrants learn the language, get to work and integrate, while "in Rotterdam we have third generation Moroccans who still don't speak Dutch, oppress women and won't live by our values."

"Islam is backward," he said, because there is no equality for men and women and because, he said, the imams here preach in negative terms about gays.

Asked about his proposal to scrap the constitutional ban on discrimination, Fortuyn said: "I only said that because we can't talk about the facts. If you tell the truth and say that 90 percent of youthful delinquency and street crime in Rotterdam is to blame on gangs of Moroccan, Turkish and Surinamese toughs, it's branded as racism."