Rita Verdonk, the Dutch Margaret Thatcher

People with guts go against the flow; defy accepted notions and conventions. Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents a series of portraits of people who this year proved they had guts. They could be a politician, an idealist or your next-door neighbour.

One of these people is Dutch politician Rita Verdonk. Once minister of immigration and integration, now leading a party of one in the Dutch parliament. She wants to be seen as tough-talking, gutsy, a Dutch Margaret Thatcher. But how has she used her political boldness? Has it served her well in Dutch politics?

Politician of the year
Measured by political achievement, Verdonk’s style has not served her well, at least not lately. She is isolated in parliament, and has not had much influence on policy. But measured by public image and popularity, she is doing well. She was voted politician of the year 2007 in a major national survey, and she has been doing well in other public opinion polls.

Her boldness got her kicked out of the Conservative VVD Party, and the party almost split in two. She had been the most visible leader of the party, serving as minister of immigration in two cabinets between 2003 and 2006. As minister, Verdonk established herself as tough on immigration, a protector of Dutch values, and a fierce opponent of multi-culturalism.

But after the elections, Verdonk had to retreat to the parliament benches. She had trouble accepting her position as number two in the party. When her famed forthrightness resulted in a number of public spats with party leader Mark Rutte, she got the boot.

Now she’s launched her own movement, called Proud of the Netherlands. She plans to use the movement to prepare for the next elections, which may not take place until 2011.

Rita Verdonk has succeeded in positioning herself as an outsider. Like other populists before her, she’s attracting people disillusioned by politics as usual.  That has not ingratiated her with the political establishment. As part of the same survey mentioned above, her colleagues in parliament voted her one of the worst politicians of the year.

No guts
Henk Ormel is an MP from the Christian Democrat party. He agrees that Verdonk has guts, but says,

“in politics you need to have more than guts. Sometimes you need more guts to keep quiet than to shout.”

The new number two in the Conservative VVD Party, Henk Kamp, doesn’t think Mrs Verdonk showed guts when she quit the party, but kept her seat in parliament. “You need a lot of courage to stop, to quit, and to do something else besides being a member of parliament. She didn’t choose for that.”

Staf Depla of the Labour Party was surprised that Mrs Verdonk hasn’t taken part in more debates in parliament, now that she’s on her own.

“A member of parliament has guts if she’s there when her issues are discussed. But when the main issues were debated, she wasn’t in the parliament.”

At least one representative has more respect for Rita Verdonk, and he is well-placed to comment on her latest career move: Geert Wilders.

Like Verdonk, he is a former member of the Conservative VVD party. And, also like her, Wilders is now the leader of his own movement on the far right of the political spectrum.

He told Radio Netherlands Wordwide that Mrs Verdonk does have guts.

“She took the initiative not to be part of a party where she didn’t feel welcome anymore.”

Wilders went on to say that courage is the most important quality in a politician.

“Unfortunately, if you have guts in our Dutch political system, it will be punished. If you speak out for your constituents, often, you will not be rewarded.”Geert Wilders has been rewarded for his boldness. His Freedom Party has nine seats in the current parliament. Rita Verdonk has her sights set a little higher. When she launched her new movement, she revealed that she would like to become prime minister someday. Right now, that looks like nothing but a pipedream. But one thing we have learned from Iron Rita – never underestimate a lady with guts.

For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl


Rita Verdonk, the Dutch Margaret Thatcher
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