Edition 30 August 2018, by Johannes Visser
Amsterdam has a new mayor. She is the Dutch capital’s first female mayor, and the first from a party different than Labour Party (PvdA) since 1945. Her name is Femke Halsema (52) and, although few outsiders might have heard about her, the Dutch public knows her very well as the prickly yet cuddly firebrand from the left.
You either love her or you really don’t, and there isn’t much of a middle path when it comes to Halsema. Right from the start, when she entered the public arena in 1998, her seemingly stubborn determination tucked away under a curly black bunch divided her proponents and opponents alike. Her sharp style and tone – toxic some would say, clean-cut argue others – as leader of the Green Party in Parliament were either a delight or excruciating, depending on where one stands on the political spectrum. Now, as mayor of Amsterdam, she will need to cross ideological divides, rise above petty politics and be the burgomaster of all Amsterdammers.
It should be a shoe-in. The Greens are the largest party of the city, currently governing with the Democrats 66 (D66), Labour and the Socialist Party (SP). The municipal board likes to call itself ‘kneiterlinks’ (as left as they come). Despite heavy opposition from the Netherlands’ most popular rightwing newspaper De Telegraaf trying to torch her candidacy, a majority of the city council was eager to finally have a woman mayor. It’s been a long time in the making, but after 675 years of Amsterdam history, with 1500 male mayors, Femke’s finally the first female. It’s been a rocky start ever since she assumed the chain of office on July 12th. Within weeks Halsema toured the drinkand drugs-infested city center nightlife with a Telegraaf reporter, had a big weed nursery shut down, opened the long-awaited and controversial mega project of the Noord/Zuid metro line and partook in the international Hiv/Aids conference, where she met Prince Harry. And she has hasn’t even started doing what she would love to do most: turning the capital into a sustainable and green example for the country. So far, friends and foes alike are cautiously optimistic about her performance as mayor.
It hasn’t always been that way. From the very moment Halsema entered the Tweede Kamer (the Lower House of Parliament) as the Greens’ number 3 in 1998, she distinguished herself as a strong debater with a sharp edge. In order to make the then-novel idea of ecological sustainability a viable political genre, she’s had to fight an uphill battle. She’s been effective in bringing the theme of saving the environment more to the forefront, together with the Greens and their party boss at the time, Paul Rosenmöller. When he stepped down in 2002, she took over leadership of the party. In an interview with a Utrecht magazine, Halsema said that she fights against polarization in Dutch society and advocates for less stress, less selfishness and less intolerance. “I am for gentle manners and basic political decency”, the 36-year-old Greens leader declared. And although Halsema is not one to use crude language and coarse arguments, many on the right have been on the receiving end of her verbal attacks. Former Minister for Immigration and Integration and former parliamentarian for the liberal VVD party Rita Verdonk received more than one good old-fashioned verbal skinning during the Tweede Kamer debating sessions. And when she wasn’t allowed to interrupt Prime Minister Balkenende’s speech in Parliament to ask her pointed questions, she responded angrily and impatiently, somewhat like a child that doesn’t get what it wants, as is distinctively Halsema’s personality. Still, as sharp, heavy and dry as her performances might have been, they were never close to the intentionally divisive speeches spouted by the likes of Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet (Forum for Democracy) recently. Politics in the polder country seems to have devolved into tribal warfare in recent years by smears and name-calling, but whether one likes Halsema or not, she has not contributed to this toxic climate in The Hague.
For eight years Femke Halsema was the green face of the Netherlands. But her party did not grow in size and popularity under her leadership. When she handed the reins to her successor Jolande Sap after the national elections in 2010, the Greens were again at a meagre ten seats in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer, just as under the leadership of Rosenmöller. Halsema was disappointed that after eight years of opposition politics, becoming part of a governing coalition remained a bridge too far, as it had always been for the Green Party. In the first decade of the new century, The Netherlands, just like many other countries in the west had shifted decidedly to the political right. With the exception of the occasional participation of Labour, Dutch governments were mainly built around the center and farright, between the Christian CDA, CU and SGP; VVD and D66 and those on the fringe like Lijst Pim Fortuijn (LPF) and Geert Wilders’ PVV (the latter allowed ‘confidence and supply’ for the Rutte I cabinet).
Only once did Halsema get close to having a taste of governing: when Wilders pulled the plug from the first Rutte cabinet in 2012, the Greens under Sap’s leadership joined a broad coalition to tackle the EU Stability and Growth Pact requirements and worked to curb the deficit and reform the economy (known as the ‘Lenteakkoord). When after the elections that year Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA) approached her to become minister in a personal capacity, governing partner VVD promptly did away with the idea. The previously good cooperation between ‘Teflon Mark’ (Rutte), the Christian parties and the Greens on the Lenteakkoord was to be a onetime rendezvous. All in all, old-school leftism was on the decline and there would be no space in government for leftwing firebrands like Halsema. But it wasn’t only her political cloth and personal style that shut her out of what might otherwise have been a fruitful participation of the Greens in government. Halsema has also been accused of hypocrisy, of ‘talking left, walking right’. Opponents were quick to lash out when in 2013, together with her partner, she bought an old Mercedes W123 200 sedan (‘not the most eco-friendly car’); while during the 2010 elections she had showed up for work in a Toyota Prius. Her decision to take her daughter out of a ‘black school’ after negative experiences with Muslim kids, despite her touting the greatness of multicultural society, was also not taken kindly by many in the land of Twitter and in the political blogosphere.
It was only two years ago that Halsema wrote in her autobiography ‘Pluche’ (Plush) that she would never go back to politics again. “I’m dead serious. I am not going to sit in the political waiting room, only to come back a few years later for a senate seat or a mayor’s chain.” But now she has. After a few freelancing gigs as a publishing partner, documentary maker, endowed professor at the Tilburg University and committee work at the Refugee Foundation and the Dutch Association for the Disabled, Halsema is back in business. The business of politics that is, and in the nation’s capital. Seven thousand people, from Amsterdam and outside, signed a petition trying to ‘Keep Halsema out of the Stopera (City Hall)’, arguing that she has zero administrative experience, aside from leading a political party. But now it is her time to show the nay-sayers what she is capable of, in her capacity as the new mayor.
Having Lived in Amsterdam East and de Pijp for many years, Halsema knows the ‘grachtengordel’ (canal belt) and the city beyond like the back of her hand. In a statement on her website, she calls her mayorship ‘a great privilege’, making her ‘happy, proud and humble’. She writes: “With all that I have to offer I will make every effort to be the mayor of all Amsterdammers.” Time will tell if she’s up to the job.