Once a Refugee Herself, the Woman Hoping to Be the Next Dutch PM Vows to Tighten Borders 

After winning control of the party Mark Rutte led for 17 years, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius is focused on becoming the first female prime minister of the Netherlands.

(Bloomberg) — After winning control of the party Mark Rutte led for 17 years, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius is focused on becoming the first female prime minister of the Netherlands.

If she succeeds at November’s elections, Yesilgoz-Zegerius would also be the first to hold that office having come to the country as a refugee. Her unlikely platform is a promise to crack down on migrants.

What’s unusual about the hard line pursued by the Dutch ruling party is how much it’s already cost them. It was a fight over asylum policy that torpedoed Rutte’s fourth consecutive coalition government in July, prompting the country’s longest-serving prime minister to announce his retirement from politics.

Born in Turkey, Yesilgoz-Zegerius isn’t the only right-wing European politician vowing to tighten borders as she confronts a tricky election with populist rivals closing in. Take British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — himself the child of immigrants — who’s made hostility to foreign arrivals key to wooing colleagues further to the right. 

It is a fight that’s still worth having, according to his successor Yesilgoz-Zegerius, who last month assumed the leadership of the party Rutte used to run. In a recent interview with Bloomberg the 46-year-old prime ministerial hopeful said that the nation’s asylum policies don’t “make sense.” 

In a small country whose residents now include over 2.6 million people born abroad, the asylum system ought to prioritize “true refugees” at the expense of economic migrants, she said.

In doing so she’s signaling a readiness to cooperate with partners on the right after the elections scheduled for Nov. 22. Though her VVD is the largest bloc in parliament, it has spent the year trailing a succession of rivals as second-placed in opinion polls. The latest surveys suggest it would win only a third of the 76 seats necessary for a majority if elections were held today. 

According to the math of the fractured Dutch parliament, Yesilgoz-Zegerius still has a strong shot at the top job. The party polling narrowly in front of hers is led by a right-leaning lawmaker who’s so far ruled himself out of trying to be prime minister, and rivals on the left may not have enough seats between them without making overtures across the aisle.    

The highest placed left-wing contender is Frans Timmermans who leads an alliance between the Green Left and Labor parties, and who stepped down as the European Union’s climate chief to take the role.

Willingness to Compromise

Where the frugal Rutte embodied some deeply-held Dutch stereotypes⁠, his successor speaks to the nation’s more contemporary contradictions. Over a quarter of the country’s residents were either born abroad or have a parent who was, according to the most recent official data.

Far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders’s call to exclude Moroccans from the country is a “disgusting” proposal, Yesilgoz-Zegerius said in the interview. But she refused to rule out partnering with the far-right lawmaker to form a government.

“I don’t want to exclude any voters,” she said. “So, I am not starting by excluding parties.”

Born to Kurdish-Turkish parents who sought political asylum in the Netherlands when she was a child, Yesilgoz-Zegerius says her stance on migration is entirely consistent with her origins. “If I came to the Netherlands today as a refugee, there is no way that eight-year-old girl would have had the same opportunity to become a minister as I did,” she said, citing an overcrowded asylum system.

Predecessor’s Mold

Donald Pols, the head of influential green pressure group Milieudefensie, came into regular contact with Yesilgoz-Zegerius when she was climate secretary. He said her election would be good for the environment — an area in which he cited her genuine commitment — but expressed himself “unpleasantly surprised” by her migration policies, calling her too eager to court the far right.

Yesilgoz-Zegerius’s openness to partnering with the controversial Wilders betrays a pragmatism that puts her squarely in her predecessor’s mold. Rutte governed after the collapse of his first 2010 coalition government with support from Wilders’s Freedom Party, while his second involved a partnership with left-leaning Labor. 

Though in subsequent parliaments Rutte ruled out cooperation with Wilders, the anti-Islamic lawmaker used his first campaign interview in De Telegraaf last weekend to open the door to working with the new VVD leader, by expressing his willingness to compromise on issues like migration.  

Rutte Sputter

In March, Rutte presided over the worst Senate election results of his premiership, as the Farmer-Citizen Movement became the biggest bloc in the Dutch upper house. They sealed their win partly by opposing the government’s push to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 — a controversial plan that has since been watered down.

The farmers’ movement plummeted from first to fourth place in voting intentions for the November elections after Rutte’s VVD worked hard to shift the conversation away from environmental policies onto migration. By trying to corner his coalition partners into a more hostile stance toward people fleeing war zones he managed to change the subject, but at great personal cost. While his brinkmanship collapsed the government, he remains in place as caretaker until the vote.

As head of the justice ministry — the department with jurisdiction over immigration — Yesilgoz-Zegerius played a key role in those talks, and in that high-stakes strategy. She told Bloomberg that she admires her predecessor’s ability to form alliances. There is some evidence of this flexibility in her own CV. The child of a trade unionist, she began her career on the left, with stints in the Socialist, Labor and Green parties before finding a home in the VVD.

“She has the same style as Rutte, but I think she is more authentic and a little less calculated,” Pols said. “She is an interesting personality because of her contradictions.”

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