Can Rutte steer the VVD from Hurricane Rita?

1st June 2006, Comments 0 comments

His coalition partners breathe a sigh of relief as new Liberal Party (VVD) leader Mark Rutte sets out a moderate course. But how will he control his first mate Rita Verdonk who prefers rougher seas?

Following his surprise victory in the leadership election on Wednesday evening, junior minister Mark Rutte has his work cut out for him.

Mark Rutte has a nine-point plan for electoral success

First he has to guide student rights legislation through parliament. Once that is done, he will replace Willibrord van Beek after the summer as leader of the 28 Liberal MPs in parliament. His major challenge will be to woo the voters ahead of the general election in May 2007.

Rutte's last outing at the polls wasn't a major success, and ironically created the vacancy he has now filled. Rutte was the VVD's campaign manager for the local elections in March. His strategy of American-style attack ads and negative campaigning against the Labour Party (PvdA) rebounded badly. The VVD lost council seats as the PvdA triumphed.

Left or right

Jozias van Aartsen, the political leader or Lijsttrekker of the VVD, resigned. The party was left with a choice between Rutte and bullish Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk who thrives on confrontation, solo initiatives and strong one-liners.

The party's 40,000 members had a say in the issue for the first time and it seemed Verdonk's populism would win the day.

Instead 51 percent of the VVD voters opted for what newspaper 'NRC Handelsblad' called Rutte's "moderate, neo-liberal profile". Opting for the former human resources manager with Unilever, the party is staking its tent in the centre of the political landscape.

Rutte has dismissed the call by his former VVD colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali for a debate on the law that allows Muslims (as well as Christians and Jews) to set up their own schools.
He isn't a fan Verdonk's quick-fit solutions. "The Rutte line doesn't consist of one-liners. His election poster reads like a multiple-choice assignment: liberal values, energy, leadership, ambition and integrity," the NRC noted.

Moderate agenda

Unlike Verdonk's simple "rules are rules" view on life, Rutte presented a nine-point plan, covering the economy, environment, two-income households, poverty, integration and immigration, national pride, respect for senior citizens, and security.

Rita Verdonk acts first and thinks later

It was hardly suited for today's sound-bite culture, but it worked. Favoured by the party elite, he now has the approval of the more right-wing rank-and-file.  In his victory speech, Rutte said he would "continue to combat the view that the VVD was only for those who have it good". 

His party hopes this will help to win over moderate voters from the moderately left-wing PvdA of Wouter Bos and make the VVD one of, if not the, biggest parties in the 150-seat parliament in 2007. VVD heavyweight Frans Weisglas - a Verdonk supporter - dismissed Rutte as the "little brother of Wouter Bos" recently. Meant as an insult, it also indicates the potential Rutte has to attack the larger PvdA were it is strongest. 

Rutte at the helm of the VVD will also hinder attempts by the Democrat D66 to re-claim the mantle of moderate liberalism.

Who is to say Rutte and Bos won't form a coalition six years after the purple coalition of the VVD, PvdA and D66 collapsed in disarray in the face of internal bickering and Pim Fortuyn populism?

Alternatively, Rutte could work just as well with Christian Democrat Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

Right in the wings

According to the script of the choreographed event on Wednesday, Verdonk, a good loser, will be on hand in the months ahead to shore up the right flank of the VVD for Rutte. Moments after losing the leadership election, Verdonk was vowing to stand by the man her campaign team had accused of fraud.

Liberal Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm enthused about the prospect of a 'nice tandem effort' - Rutte as the party's number one candidate and Verdonk as number two.

Since when did Verdonk become a team player?

This is the minister who ignored Balkenende's instructions and rushed out the announcement that former VVD MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali may not be entitled to a Dutch passport to show how decisive she was ahead of the leadership election. Most Liberal MPs were infuriated by Verdonk's opportunism.

This is the minister who wanted to send gay and Christian asylum seekers back to Iran. Parliament stopped her.

This is the minister who gave parliament incorrect information about Congolese asylum seekers. Incredibly 'Hurricane Rita' - as some critics have dubbed her - has escaped motions of no confidence despite repeated clashes with parliament.   

And Verdonk was the minister who portrayed herself as the anti-establishment candidate in the VVD election. She suggested the party elite was out of touch with what the real (right-wing) rank and file wanted. (Her advisers included Kay van der Linden, who worked for populist Pim Fortuyn.)

*sidebar1*The party bosses want to put this unpleasantness behind them and bury any talk of a split. Wednesday's leadership announcement in the Okura Hotel was heavily stage managed to emphasise unity. Party chairman Jan van Zaanen and caretaker political leader Van Beek met with Verdonk and Rutte on Saturday and got a commitment they would play along no matter who won.

Plain sailing?

Rutte has now got the top job, but has he really won? An opinion poll conducted for NOS News showed a five-seat drop in support for the VVD under Rutte. These voters are going over to radical conservatives like Geert Wilders, one of the most prominent critics of Islam. Hirsi Ali, the number one critic, is leaving to work for a neo-conservative think tank in Washington, without or without a Dutch passport.

Verdonk will seize her chance to push for a more right-wing agenda should the VVD's slide in popularity continue. Even if it doesn't, Verdonk has not shown she is a team player and it is not a question of if but when she will brew up another storm, exacerbating the divide between the moderates and the right of the party.  

She can always jump ship to Wilders or one of the other fledgling right-wing parties in the make if it all goes wrong within the VVD. Rutte has nowhere to go.

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Dutch news, Mark Rutte, Rita Verdonk

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