Never a dull moment at Open Vld. Three weeks after Gwendolyn Rutten gave her party a big middle finger, the Aarschot native still has the best cards to become Minister Bart Somers’ successor.
Seven months before the elections, Open Vld has to look for a new deputy prime minister in Flanders. The most important task that remains for him or her: to help force a breakthrough in the protracted nitrogen dossier.
There is no shortage of candidates among the liberals, but two names are emphatically put forward by well-informed liberals. The first is Stephanie D’Hose, vice-chairwoman of the party and also chairwoman of the Senate. She is part of a new generation of liberals and has the advantage of not encountering any major resistance.
Two elements play against her. One: like Alexander De Croo, she comes from East Flanders, which is why the Prime Minister fears that he will again be criticized for taking over all positions of power. Two: the same De Croo smells an opportunity to make amends with former chairman Gwendolyn Rutten.
Yes, Gwendolyn Rutten. Only a few weeks ago there was a painful rift between her and the party leadership. Rutten was then seen as a top candidate to replace Vincent Van Quickenborne in the federal government, but had to give up on Paul Van Tigchelt.
“A lack of respect,” said Rutten. In her disappointment, she immediately announced that after 2024 she would no longer sit for Open Vld in the Flemish or federal parliament. She had few nice words for her party. “I love democracy and society too much to cynically participate in a game that is not my own.” That outburst – and the choice of Van Tigchelt as the new minister – caused one liberal to attack the party head-on.
Open Vld is still licking its wounds, but at the party top they see the replacement of Somers as an opportunity to close ranks again. An unlikely one turn of events is that, which also causes great surprise within its own ranks.
Because the party leadership already knew that Somers would leave when Van Quickenborne was dismissed. Somers himself knew it, of course, but chairman Tom Ongena was also aware. If Rutten was a candidate to join the Flemish government, couldn’t Ongena have prevented a lot of drama a few weeks ago by informing her? Ongena said that it was far from certain whether and when Somers would call it a day.
In any case, the Liberal party leadership should pay attention. By breaking so openly with her party last month, Rutten has caused bad blood among a significant number of her colleagues. Former chairman Egbert Lachaert, a fellow provincial and partner of D’Hose, among others, called this disloyal behavior.
It can already be heard internally that Ongena and De Croo – what remains of the so-called G4 after the departure of Somers and Van Quickenborne – should think carefully about whether they want to fish for Rutten. “This is a bad Solomon’s judgment,” says a source.
Rutten would also be quite a risk in terms of content, knowing that in Flanders there is actually only one important dossier left on the table: nitrogen. Rutten, who as mayor of Aarschot was concerned about the fate of the historic abbey farm of Averbode, has long been an outspoken critic of the way the government is handling the file.
Rutten is of the opinion that the current nitrogen decree would best be thoroughly modified. Her predecessor, Bart Somers, has always tried to look for consensus within the government. At crucial moments he usually joined the N-VA position. In terms of content, Rutten leans towards that of CD&V.
A choice for Rutten would be a choice for much-needed rest within Open Vld, after the turbulent weeks since Van Tigchelt’s appointment. No one within the party leadership doubts the appointment of the Antwerp citizen to the Justice Department. But at the same time, it should never have gotten to the point where Rutten closed the door with such a deafening bang.
Or put differently: the fact that people like Jean-Jacques De Gucht, Frederik Schiltz or Mercedes Van Volcem no longer seem to have a significant role in the new Open Vld, no one within the party leadership cares much. But Rutten was still counted on to make a difference in the elections and afterwards.
In Rutten’s home province of Flemish Brabant, three out of three of the twelve liberal parliamentary seats will soon be at stake. During the charged party office about Van Tigchelt’s appointment, a series of Flemish Brabanders, including Maggie De Block, Maurits Vande Reyde and Tim Vandenput, spoke dissatisfied about the fact that the province was passed over.
In any case, Somers will remain as minister until Sunday. He himself does not want to interfere “like a mother-in-law” with the question of who will be his successor. At the same time, Somers said on Tuesday – at the presentation of his city project Voor Mechelen – that he believes it is necessary to “continue the personnel renewal of Open Vld”. He gave this as one of the main reasons why he is exchanging the Wetstraat for the Mechelen town hall.
Somers did not want to say whether an appointment of Rutten as a new minister fits into this innovation picture. He would prefer D’Hose.
Rutten himself is now shrouding himself in silence.