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THE HAGUE — Dutch voters may be about to get someone very different from the outgoing veteran prime minister Mark Rutte.
A former refugee, Dilan Yeşilgöz, who succeeded Rutte as leader of the VVD party, is now leading the polls ahead of Wednesday’s vote and could become the first female prime minister in Dutch history.
The contest is on a knife-edge, with three parties vying to win the most seats, but her nearest rival, Pieter Omtzigt has signalled he may not want the top job for himself.
That makes it even likelier that Yeşilgöz, the country’s justice minister, will become premier at the head of the next government.
Read more: How to watch the Dutch elections like a pro – POLITICO
A self-confessed workaholic, Yeşilgöz is media savvy and does not talk much about being a woman in politics. She is invariably good humored and full of energy in public, despite what she says are “tough” demands of her current job. Her liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is now in joint first place with 18 points in POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, after she took over from Rutte as its leader.
Her platform has been a promise to crack down on migration, an issue that has long dogged Dutch politics.
But Yeşilgöz told POLITICO it is her own background as a refugee that has shaped her view on migration.
“There’s an influx of too many people, not only asylum seekers but also migrant workers and international students, which means that we don’t have the capacity to help real refugees,” Yeşilgöz said. She listed problems in the system, including poor quality reception facilities for asylum seekers and housing shortages as obstacles.
Yet Yeşilgöz has a mountain ahead of her to succeed in the election.
If the VVD wins, it would be exceptional. There are hardly any examples of governing parties that, during a change in leadership, still remain the largest.
Yet the latest POLITICO Poll of Polls shows that VVD is neck and neck with centrist outsider Omtzigt’s new party, New Social Contract. The green-left alliance of Frans Timmermans is also in with a chance, on 15 percent.
NETHERLANDS NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
As justice minister in the current caretaker government, she has been described as a tough negotiator and a strong communicator, who only does three things besides work: sleep, exercise and eating healthily.
But while Rutte has always been very private about his personal life, Yeşilgöz has been far more open, talking frankly about her marriage, her battles with an immune condition and her hesitation about having children.
Also unlike Rutte, who was often spotted cycling to appointments, Yeşilgöz is driven everywhere and has to be heavily protected by a personal security detail due to her position as a justice minister. “It is a big part of my life and that is very tough. But I choose to keep going, to not quit, because I will not be intimidated,” she said.
The increasingly violent and coarse nature of public discourse in the Netherlands is a growing issue in Dutch politics. Outgoing finance minister Sigrid Kaag announced earlier that she was leaving politics amid concerns over her safety.
Fair and strict
Brussels is also keeping a close eye on the upcoming election. The Netherlands has positioned itself under the leadership of Rutte as a reliable and dominant partner in the EU. But officials in embassies and institutions in Brussels now wonder if the next government will maintain such a positive role after the November 22 vote.
It’s a clear “yes” from Yeşilgöz, if she ends up as premier. “As a small country, we can play a big role. We have always done that, and it’s incredibly important that we will keep doing that,” she said.
Playing strict and and playing fair will be the main pillars that underpin her approach to the EU, said Yeşilgöz. That includes no tinkering with the criteria when new countries want to become an EU member — a debate that is already heating up in light of Ukraine’s application to join the 27-country bloc.
Traditionally, the Dutch have been hawks-in-chief on EU fiscal policy, criticizing big spenders and demanding a reduction in debt levels. But in more recent times, the Dutch government has favored flexibility, within reason.
“Just being very strict and not looking at the context at all, I am exaggerating a bit, that’s not going to be our line,” Yeşilgöz said. “But being very flexible and actually making things less clear and more complex is not our line either. Europe must be a stable cooperation, and clear financial agreements are very important to this end.”
Although the VVD is leading in the polls, the race is far from done.
The main challenge for Yeşilgöz during the campaign has been to convince voters that she wants renewal despite her party being in power for more than a decade.
The past thirteen years a lot of things have been going well, she said, pointing to the fact that The Netherlands weathered the economic crisis and coronavirus pandemics relatively safely.
“At the same time, when you zoom in and see that many people with normal jobs and incomes lie awake at night because of their bills … so I can’t say that things are going well for everyone,” she said.
“On top of that there have been in the past years some blind spots,” she said. These included the poor handling of compensation claims in relation to earthquake damage in Groningen and a childcare benefits fiasco in which thousands of people, often dual-nationals, were incorrectly labeled fraudsters. “It is evident that we have learned from that and need to prevent new blind spots from appearing.”
And what of her former lader, Rutte? He was spotted in Brussels earlier this month on a visit to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, after hinting he would like to take over the position at the top of the military alliance himself.
Asked whether Rutte was gunning to lead NATO, Yeşilgöz laughed.“Wherever he ends up, that organization is very lucky to have him,” she said.