On 18 January, Lilianne Ploumen became the new leader of the Dutch Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid), following the resignation of her predecessor Lodewijk Asscher, who stepped down due to his connection to the recent childcare allowance scandal. Ploumen thus becomes the first female leader in the history of the party, and PvdA now joins the group of female-led political parties in the Netherlands, along with D66, the Socialist Party, 50Plus and the Party for the Animals.
Having been the first choice for the new leader, amongst options such as Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb and Speaker of the House Khadija Arib, Ploumen takes over the leadership of the PvdA at a crucial time, less than two months away from the general election scheduled for 17 March. Just a few weeks prior, former party leader Lodewijk Asscher resigned over the toeslagenaffair, a scandal in which the Dutch tax authority (Belastingdienst) wrongfully accused almost 30,000 families of childcare allowance fraud, making them pay back to the government, in some cases, tens of thousands of euros.
As Minister of Social Affairs during the second Rutte government, Lodewijk Asscher widely criticized for his role in the scandal. Although he declared that he did not know what the tax authority was doing, he stepped down as leader of the PvdA and further acknowledged that the system had “made the government an enemy of its people”. In her acceptance speech, Ploumen contrasted the “sincere apologies” of Asscher with the lame “excuses” of Mark Rutte and the CDA party coalition leader Wopke Hoekstra, as FD newspaper reported, She declared that the allowance scandal was a symbol of the damage to the constitutional state and the welfare system in the Netherlands: “that’s why the PvdA is sorely needed. We created the constitutional state and the welfare system, and we will rebuild it again,” Ploumen stated.
According to PvdA chairwoman Nelleke Vedelaar, as De Volkskrant reported, the emancipation struggle that the party wants to develop fits very well with Ploumen’s profile: “Her personal narrative tells the story of the PvdA. The daughter of a milkman from Maastricht can grow into the leader of a movement.” Indeed, Ploumen celebrated her new position as party leader quoting advice she received from her parents at an early age: “You are no more, but also no less than anyone else.”
Ploumen’s career in the PvdA started in 2003 after several years in the private sector, mostly as a market researcher. From 2007 to 2012 she was chairwoman of the party, and from 2012 to 2017 she acted as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation in the second Rutte government, in a coalition consisting of Rutte’s VVD and the PvdA. The alliance between the leftist PvdA and the liberal, right-wing VVD was criticized by many Labour voters at the time, and later reversed by the PvdA, which currently serves in the opposition. Now, Ploumen says that she would not be part of a cabinet unless it is joined by at least one other left-wing party, and states that she would prefer a cabinet without the VVD and its current coalition partner, the Christian-democrat CDA.
While still minister in 2017, Ploumen became famous internationally as the founder of “She Decides,” a nongovernmental organization devoted to raise funds for global initiatives to spread knowledge about contraception, family planning and abortion, especially in developing countries. This happened as a response to US president Donald Trump’s act of signing an executive order to forbid all US funding for those purposes, which created a vast financial gap in women and girls’ sexual and reproductive education around the world. After managing to get collaboration from several countries, Ploumen’s initiative raised several hundred million dollars to help compensate for the US’s decision. At the time, Ploumen was featured in a piece by the New York Times, and the unofficial tag of the international campaign became #PloumenforWomen.
On 18 January, when presented as the new leader of her party, Ploumen said that she had had some crazy days, but ultimately little doubt: “Politics is the way to change what is wrong, and being party leader is a great platform to accomplish that.”
Written by Juan Alvarez Umbarila