Not many have to deal with the almost impossible task of succeeding an outgoing Prime Minister after four consecutive terms in office. It takes a lot of guts and focus to try to lead your party to a fifth straight victory. It also takes organisational maturity from the party in government to build the talent that one day could succeed such a long-serving PM.
With Mark Rutte stepping down as PM in the Netherlands and leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), all bets are on Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, the current Minister of Justice, to succeed him. She could become the first female Dutch PM, the first immigrant and the first of Turkish descent.
The VVD has invested a lot of energy in creating talent paths for their political figures to occupy the top job. Dilan has been one of those success stories of public servants who saw the path and built their way towards the top. With left-of-centre figures like Sanna Marin and Jacinda Arndern leaving politics, she could join Kaja Kallas in bringing to the public eye a new type of female leadership, more liberal-conservative.
It is time to explore the rise of Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius.
After brief stints in the Socialist Party, the Labour Party and Green-Left, her career with the VVD began only in 2014 as a local councillor in Amsterdam – a rapid journey compared to others. She was attracted to the party’s emphasis on individual freedom, economic liberalism, and its commitment to fostering a strong and secure society. Concerned that new communities have not fully integrated into Dutch society, the VVD has been keen to address security, immigration and integration issues in a country rapidly growing in diversity.
Coming from a non-Dutch household and being elected in a multicultural district in Amsterdam, Dilan has been outspoken about the dangers of radicalisation and poor societal integration. With a background in sociology, she has taken the topic of security to heart. Safety was part of her council portfolio, and she worked on several ordinances and policies to diminish growing violence against women and the LGBTQI community in Amsterdam. Although her proposals were not always successful, she was praised by colleagues from other political groups for her tenacity and passion, and for her consistency in consulting her constituents to back up her policy efforts. The centre-left newspaper De Volkskrant nicknamed her a “pit-bull with empathy”.
The VVD has a dedicated unit to scout talent and assign portfolios to potential experts. This is unique for political parties as, typically, talent management is not a priority in many organisations. Parties with strong leaders often regard rising talent as a threat and push emerging stars into roles that could diminish their shine. That is not the case for the VVD. With violence and safety becoming critical issues for voters in Amsterdam, Dilan was quickly identified as a potential specialist. In 2017, she got the necessary support to jump into national politics.
Her initial portfolios included climate, media and emancipation, but in 2019, she became the VVD’s spokesperson for justice and security. This allowed her to work on the government’s efforts to combat crime, promote community engagement and enhance integration efforts. Yet, with security being a sensitive topic, Dilan has been the centre of controversy on several occasions, especially on the issue of combating radicalisation both from the left and the right.
Despite being tough on migration, Dilan has expressed her belief that diversity enriches the Dutch nation. Her personal experience as a first generation immigrant, the daughter of a Turkish Kurdish trade unionist, have made her a frequent media guest in debates about multiculturalism and integration.
Growing media interest in Dilan pushed her up to fourth place on the national VVD list in 2021. When the fourth Rutte Cabinet was formed in January 2022, she was appointed Minister of Justice and Safety. Given her profile, many saw Dilan as the ideal successor to Rutte, whose government fell over differences on migration policy. On July 12th, she announced her candidacy as party leader. While she faces internal competition, she is the favourite to become party leader and has a strong chance of becoming Prime Minister, since he VVD’s strong position in pre-election polls make it the party most likely to lead a coalition.
The rise of Dilan is a master class for future politicians to focus on a topic close to their hearts and push for policies beyond identity politics. Dilan’s political efforts are focused on the safety of all citizens and not just of the group that some seek to define as her heritage.
The rise of Dilan is also a case study for investment in talent management. Many parties operate on autopilot, and they panic when a change of leadership is needed, increasing the potential for internal conflict, which harms the party’s image with voters.
We will be following Dilan’s journey, as the Dutch campaign for elections in November is just starting. Regardless of the outcome, it is fascinating to see such a rare political figure rise to the top and break the Dutch glass ceiling.