Here Are the Main Contenders to Replace Rutte as Dutch Premier

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s surprise decision to leave politics has created a political vacuum in the country, with several possible contenders to take over from the Netherlands’ longest-serving premier.

(Bloomberg) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s surprise decision to leave politics has created a political vacuum in the country, with several possible contenders to take over from the Netherlands’ longest-serving premier.

Rutte’s announcement last week and the collapse of his government amid infighting over migration policy have triggered new elections on Nov. 22. The ballot provides an opportunity for left and right-leaning parties to increase their parliamentary seats, and even shoot for the premiership. Three of the four coalition parties in the current government — Rutte’s VVD, the progressive D66 and the Christian Democrats — are replacing their chiefs.

The leader of the largest party in the elections is often tasked with forming a new government as prime minister. Rutte and the current cabinet members will work in a caretaker capacity until the next government is formed.

The fragmented political landscape in the Netherlands makes it impossible to form a government without a coalition and leads to lengthy and difficult negotiations. Currently, 17 political parties are represented in the lower house and no single group has ever gained a majority in parliament. The last coalition talks took a record nine months.

The field of candidates to replace Rutte is crowded, but here are the four main contenders:

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius – Rutte’s VVD

Rutte’s center-right VVD party, currently the largest in the Dutch parliament, has already nominated Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius as its leader candidate.

The daughter of a Kurdish political refugee from Turkey, Yesilgoz-Zegerius was born in Ankara and moved to the Netherlands as a child. She worked as an adviser and a council member at the Amsterdam municipality for over a decade. She became a member of parliament from the VVD party in 2017, ascending to the role of State Secretary for Economic Affairs and Climate in Rutte’s third cabinet before becoming justice minister last year.

Yesilgoz-Zegerius is seen as one of the strongest candidates in the race, but since Rutte was crucial to making VVD the Netherlands’ largest party, it’s not clear if his successor will maintain its position in the next election. 

Along with Rutte, Yesilgoz-Zegerius had held talks with coalition parties in search of an agreement over the influx of asylum seekers, which ultimately resulted in the collapse of the coalition. She, like Rutte, advocated limiting the right to family reunification for refugees from war zones, which drew criticism from socially progressive parties. 

Caroline van der Plas – Pro-Farmers Party

Caroline van der Plas is the leader of the populist Farmer-Citizen Movement, which stormed onto the Dutch political scene in 2019. The party, known by its Dutch initials BBB, claimed a surprise victory in the March upper house elections, making it the biggest player in the Senate. The party is placed at the right of the Dutch political spectrum.

A self-proclaimed “farmer without a farm,” Van der Plas rose to prominence after the destruction of biodiversity from intensive farming in the Netherlands, the world’s second-largest exporter of food by value, forced the government to impose drastic measures to comply with European Union rules on reducing nitrogen pollution. Farmers have raged against the policies, with thousands taking part in months-long protests against measures likely to put some of them out of business. The stinging electoral defeat due to the nitrogen controversy pushed Rutte’s coalition to the brink of collapse earlier this year.

Van der Plas’ party is leading some of the polls, but she has sent mixed signals about her bid for the top job. She said the prime minister role is only an option for her if she can focus on the Netherlands and not on external matters.

Frans Timmermans – Left Alliance

Left-wing Dutch parties have struggled over the past couple of decades, with the last Labor Party prime minister leaving office in 2002. But a recent merger of the two top left-wing parties may change their destiny. Earlier this week, Labor and Green Left parties announced their decision to combine campaigns and unite behind one candidate to succeed Rutte.

European Union climate chief Frans Timmermans Thursday announced his plans to return to Dutch politics and run for leadership of the left alliance. Labor party chief Attje Kuiken tweeted her “strong support” for Timmermans’ candidacy and Green Left leader Jesse Klaver said he is “absolutely the perfect prime minister” for ushering in a new era in the Netherlands.

Despite being away from Dutch politics for nearly a decade, Timmermans, who is a former foreign minister, remains popular in the Netherlands. A strong proponent of plans to reduce nitrogen emissions, Timmermans’ pro-environmental policies will put him at odds with Van der Plas’ BBB.  

Since 2019, Timmermans has spearheaded the EU’s green deal, the landmark plan to put the continent on course for climate neutrality by the middle of the century. His role has frequently put him in the firing line for politicians who are skeptical over the speed and cost of climate action.

The Green Left and Labor currently have a combined 17 seats in Dutch parliament. In the run-up to the Senate elections in March, the two parties had presented a single list of candidates and gained 14 senate seats for a second place behind the surprise winner, BBB. 

Pieter Omtzigt – Independent

Pieter Omtzigt left the Christian Democrat party in 2021 amid infighting, and has remained in the Dutch parliament as an independent lawmaker. It is unclear if Omtzigt will start his own party or join an existing group in the run up to the November elections. 

As Rutte’s reputation deteriorated over the years, Omtzigt dialed up his opposition to the prime minister. Omtzigt played an important role in uncovering the childcare subsidies scandal that tossed thousands of people into poverty and resulted in kids being separated from their parents and placed in foster homes. That led to the collapse of Rutte’s third government in December 2020 and cemented Omtzigt’s reputation as a politician fighting the good fight. In the process of forming his fourth cabinet in 2021, Rutte nearly lost a vote of no confidence over accusations that he secretly tried to sideline Omtzigt.

Omtzigt’s popularity is reflected in an EenVandaag Poll last week that showed him as the leading candidate to replace Rutte. BBB leader Caroline van der Plas has said she hopes Omtzigt will join her party but a spokesperson for Omtzigt rejected this suggestion. Omtzigt said he will provide clarity over his future in a couple of weeks.

–With assistance from Chris Miller.

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