The Netherlands will go to the polls next week to choose their new prime minister. There’s only one problem: the man leading the race doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about doing the job.
Pieter Omtzigt founded his New Social Contract (NSC) only three months ago, but has been leading the polls for weeks in a hotly contested campaign.
Traditionally, it is the largest party in a highly fragmented parliament that nominates the candidate for prime minister, and that person is almost always the party leader. But Omtzigt remained vague about his intentions, leaving the door open to the possibility of backing someone else for the top job, even if his party wins the most seats on November 22.
“I see what The Hague does to politicians, it can consume you 24/7. And so I also have a responsibility at home and that is important,” said the father of four . “Besides, I think it is also very useful for my political antenna to be from time to time on a football field, in a church or in a school.”
However, his reluctance is rare.
“It is very unusual, so far in the campaign, that the largest party is not saying who the next prime minister could be if they win,” said Sarah de Lange, a politics professor at the University of Amsterdam.
So who is Omtzigt and what does he do?
This 49-year-old man helped unveil the family allowance scandal which brought down Mark Rutte’s third government at the end of 2020, which included his former party. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of the establishment.
In a long note after this episode, Omtzigt listed all the offensive words that other party members had used to describe him. They ranged from “asshole” to “psychopath” to “sick man.”
Such an exhausting campaign over the child benefits scandal led to months of burnout. But it also cemented his image as an idealistic warrior who challenges the dominant order and cannot be silenced under pressure.
“I’m not a messiah, but I think I’m proposing realistic policies,” he said.
Although his party is new, Omtzigt has served in the House of Representatives for twenty years, almost his entire professional life. He spent the first eighteen years in the Christian Democratic Appeal, a traditional government party, before leaving his job to work as a lone politician. He is a trained econometrician and studied in the United Kingdom and Italy.
Omtzigt said, after insistence, that he doubted the post of prime minister could be held by a father of four living in Enschede, a town 200 kilometers east of The Hague. He also admitted to being surprised by his party’s success and therefore the potential opportunity to become prime minister.
He was asked if he was fit enough for the job after his burnout a few years ago. “I learned from it and changed things,” he replied, adding that he went to the gym several times a week and was a volunteer referee at his local football club in Enschede . At the same time, Omtzigt says, he learned to better respect his boundaries. This also means he abstained from several debates during the campaign.
The latest POLITICO poll shows that the NSC is neck and neck with the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with 18 percent and the Green Left Alliance with 16 percent. This means that forming a successful coalition will likely require at least two of the three major parties, in addition to two or more smaller parties.
After 13 years of Rutte-led coalitions, voters now want something different, De Lange said. “Under Mark Rutte’s leadership, a culture has emerged in which there is little transparency within the cabinet and few repercussions for mistakes.” As a result, public trust in The Hague is at its lowest level in 10 years.
In a country looking for a fresh start, Omtzigt presents an attractive CV. In recent years, he has become the anti-Rutte, seen by voters as trustworthy and tenacious, she added.
Besides Omtzigt, among those trying to replace Rutte are his successor as VVD leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz, and Frans Timmermans, the former EU heavyweight now heading a combined green-left list.
Omtzigt has a centrist political agenda, embracing a mix of progressive and conservative ideas. Economically, he advocates higher taxes on the rich, stronger workers’ rights and an increase in the minimum wage. However, he supports right-wing policies on migration and ethical issues, such as abortion and transgender rights.
The NSC’s main promise is state reform by introducing a constitutional court to oversee politicians, and electoral reform that would allow voters to choose candidates in constituencies rather than national lists.
Having held positions in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Omtzigt has said he favors European cooperation but does not support ever closer union.
“NSC wants to remain an active player in the EU, even if there will sometimes be differences in direction compared to the previous administration,” said Caspar Veldkamp, NSC candidate and head of the Bank. European Union for Reconstruction and Development, to POLITICO by SMS. message.
“We want the EU to look more outward, in the face of global threats, by strengthening its external borders and developing a stable belt around Europe. In the EU, we attach great importance to placing powers at the lowest possible level, to subsidiarity in short,” said Veldkamp, former ambassador to Israel and Greece.
One of the key points on the NSC agenda is the introduction of a legal mechanism that would oblige the government to respect the opinion of the Dutch parliament when voting on legislative proposals at the European level. The party also advocates a bloc-wide return to stricter pre-coronavirus rules on members’ debt and deficit ratios.
“European cooperation benefits from the fact that Member States have their own governance and their own budget. Temporary support in special cases is possible, but a permanent funding stream is not healthy and undermines support for European integration in many member states, such as the Netherlands,” Veldkamp said.