A Jan. 12 story about Dutch politician Emile Ratelband incorrectly reported the findings of an Interview-NSS poll. Surveys by the group found that 4 percent of voters "could imagine" voting for Ratelband, and among Pim Fortuyn voters, between 6 percent and 17 percent in two weekly polls said they would consider voting for Ratelband in the Jan. 22 elections. (Published 1/20/03)
At a mosque here last Sunday, about a hundred men, many bearded, some wearing white knitted caps, sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, listening to speakers from two of the main political parties in the Netherlands talk about immigration and the need for more assimilation. Then all heads turned at once to the back as one guest who was uninvited -- and, to the politicians onstage, unwanted -- swept into the room flanked by bodyguards.
The party-crasher was Emile Ratelband, the latest outspoken and unconventional newcomer to enter the political fray ahead of national elections later this month. A former baker, Ratelband, 56, found wealth and celebrity as a motivational speaker and "positive thinking" guru, following in the self-help school of his American mentor, Anthony Robbins.
"All you do is look negatively at immigrants," he thundered from the back of the mosque to the politicians onstage. "Give power back to the communities. They can solve their own problems."
The mainstream parties try to ignore him. He is rarely mentioned in national newspaper reports. And he is not included in official debates, which are limited to the top four parties in the polls. So Ratelband -- a familiar figure to most Dutch from a decade-and-a-half of television appearances and self-help books -- is waging his upstart campaign with an Internet site he claims receives 50,000 hits each day; through smaller, local and specialized media; and by showing up uninvited at functions such as the meeting at the mosque.
"I go because they are boycotting me," Ratelband said in his car, riding to his next stop, Amsterdam, for a taped appearance on a Surinamese television program. "I'm an internationally known trainer, but they think I'm crazy," he said. "I'm not a nobody. They say in the newspapers I'm a clown, that I want to make a soap opera out of politics. . . . They're laughing at me."
Ratelband is trying to tap into the mood of disillusionment so effectively exploited last year by the slain political maverick Pim Fortuyn. A well-known academic, the flamboyant Fortuyn, with his unconventional political campaign and violent death, has upended Dutch politics. His influence is still reverberating through the system eight months after his assassination on May 6, making predictions and polls here suspect.
Fortuyn received 1.6 million votes in last May's elections, enough for his party to become the second-largest in the Netherlands, even though he was dead and his List Pim Fortuyn party -- a collection of novices -- was left rudderless without him. His party entered government, but was ripped apart by internal squabbling. Now with new elections called for Jan. 22, the battle is over Fortuyn's share of "protest" votes -- from people fed up with the country's traditionally dull debates and cozy coalitions.
"With the death of Pim Fortuyn, everything has gotten back to square one and no one has stepped forward to fill the void," said Kay van de Linde, a political consultant with ties to another upstart party, Livable Netherlands. Van de Linde calls Ratelband "a clown," but added, "Voters are still frustrated and still disillusioned, and they might be open to a clown. . . . Ratelband may be the surprise of the election."
The latest opinion polls are evidence of the confusion. The Christian Democratic prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, appears well-placed to gain seats in the election. But the polls in recent weeks have shown a sharp increase in support for the radical Socialist Party, which supports taking the Netherlands out of NATO. The Socialists, under far-left leader Jan Marijnissen, may be benefiting from their long-standing role as a "protest party."
Ratelband's month-old party, which bears his name, showed about 4 percent in the latest Interview-NSS poll. But about 40 percent of respondents were undecided, and pollsters -- caught off-guard last May by Fortuyn's rise -- are loath to make predictions. Many of Fortuyn's supporters were first-time voters, boosting turnout to 80 percent after years of decline. No one knows where these voters will go next.
Among Fortuyn's voters, 20 percent say they will vote for Ratelband, according to Interview-NSS senior researcher Aad van der Veen. But 60 to 70 percent said they would consider voting for him.
To try to head off the emergence of a new outsider, some mainstream parties have shifted their rhetoric and embraced the issues that Fortuyn put on the agenda.
Fortuyn was best known for his criticism of the country's traditionally tolerant immigration policy, the failure of many immigrants to integrate, and the involvement of immigrants in crime. Those topics were once considered taboo, but now politicians from the main parties are openly agreeing with Fortuyn that "Holland is full."
"There is still a ripple effect from the fact that Pim Fortuyn was murdered and the old politicians are back in charge," van de Linde said. "Pim Fortuyn is dead, but a lot of his ideas were adopted. . . . His ghost is still with us. He's everywhere."
Ratelband is trying to pick up Pim Fortuyn's mantle, but without the hard anti-immigration edge that frightened many voters. Ratelband believes everyone here should be called Dutch, and not Surinamese or African or whatever their place of origin. But he also wants to make it illegal to have two passports, saying, "you have to choose."
He would continue admitting political refugees, but adds, "if the political situation is stable again, you have to go back." Economic migrants would be allowed in limited numbers in fields where the Netherlands has shortages -- "but when I don't need you, out." And he says foreigners who want to marry Dutch people and live here would first have to learn the Dutch language and culture in their home country.
Ratelband is opposed to the European Union, and wants to change the constitution to give Dutch law primacy over EU rules. He calls EU expansion "crazy," saying, "we don't need these gangsters, like Bulgaria." But he thinks Turkey should be allowed into the EU.
His ideas are an odd combination of far left and far right. He says he believes children should be allowed to drop out of school at age 14 if they want, saying not everyone should be forced to study. He says all drugs should be legalized. He would cut all health and welfare payments to the unemployed and sick to a standard 500 euros, or about $528, each month.
Like Fortuyn, Ratelband also does not hesitate to provoke, even at the risk of angering his audiences. When Henny Pryor, a 65-year-old man from Suriname, stood up at a forum in Amsterdam to complain about facing anti-black discrimination, Ratelband shouted back: "You're not a minority, you're a Dutchman! You're not a victim of slavery! You are playing the victim, and you have to stop! You have to get out of this victim mentality."
When another Surinamese complained that blacks in the Netherlands could not find good jobs, Ratelband shot back, "That's crap. If you're good, you can always get to the top. Stop blaming everything on your color. You have to take personal responsibility."
But he equally infuriates right-wing white youths, saying immigrants who are here legally and work hard are Dutch and should stay. In one group of young toughs last week, he was grabbed and cut on his scalp with a knife, and is now missing a small chunk of hair above his forehead. His bodyguards quickly intervened.
With concern high after Fortuyn's assassination, Ratelband travels with a small private security detail.