Less than three weeks ago she said goodbye to national politics. The fate of her moribund party could be stolen from her. Today she is a Flemish minister and even deputy prime minister. Gwendolyn Rutten and the Liberal party leadership have a lot of explaining to do after the most unlikely comeback of the year.
“It can change. If you had told me a few days ago that I would have been sitting here, I would not have believed it,” Rutten said herself on Tuesday evening at her performance in the Flemish Parliament. She appeared shoulder to shoulder with Open Vld chairman Tom Ongena. The man she had accused of “a lack of respect” after the appointment of Paul Van Tigchelt. That’s how quickly things can move in politics, or certainly with the liberals.
Ongena emphasized that Rutten is the perfect person to fill the “big shoes” of Bart Somers. “After intensive discussions and broad consultations, we chose Gwendolyn. That is a well-considered choice that receives unanimous support from the party office.” According to Ongena, she is “the right woman in the right place”. “She will start working immediately, for example on the nitrogen file. She has all the expertise to succeed.”
Less than three weeks ago, there was a painful rift between Rutten and the party leadership. She was then seen as a top candidate to replace Vincent Van Quickenborne as federal Minister of Justice, but had to give up on Van Tigchelt.
A deeply disappointed Rutten immediately announced that she would no longer sit for Open Vld in the Flemish or federal parliament after 2024. 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 caused one liberal after another to attack the party head-on. An embarrassing spectacle that Open Vld had only just recovered from when Somers announced his own departure on Monday. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Chairman Ongena soon understood that this exit – which had been up in the air since the summer – offered them the opportunity to reconcile with Rutten and her blue supporters.
According to the party leadership, it was important that it was never the intention to put Rutten in the garbage. De Croo and Ongena want to launch new faces towards the elections in 2024, yes, but a spot was still provided for the former chairman. Also because three parliamentary seats and three Flemish parliamentary seats will soon be at stake in her home province of Flemish Brabant. Rutten is normally considered to be the Flemish party leader.
“I was disappointed a few weeks ago because I did not have enough impact in national politics,” said Rutten. “That’s why I wanted to take on another form of commitment: teaching. Until I received a phone call on Monday evening. I can understand that many people think this is crazy, but I can only say: that’s life. I am now taking my responsibility at a time when many important files still need to be dealt with.”
And again: “Maybe I have (on the appointment of Van Tigchelt, ed.) overreacted. But I’m only human and I honestly showed what I felt. Politics also means stepping over your own great emotions.”
With Rutten, the Flemish government will have a new minister who can start straight away. Rutten, as party chairman at the time, helped negotiate the Flemish coalition agreement in mid-2019. And with her years of experience in Wetstraat, she has more than enough weight to assert herself as Deputy Prime Minister.
Rutten’s appointment may have an influence on the dynamics within the Flemish government. There is actually only one important file on the table: nitrogen. This has been causing great tensions in the majority for three years now. In particular, specialist ministers Zuhal Demir and Jo Brouns have clashed head-on several times.
There are fears that the nitrogen dossier could lead to the implosion of the government this autumn. And while Somers has often been an ally of Demir over the years, his successor is much more in line with Brouns in terms of content. She regularly criticized Demir’s working methods from parliament. “There is an agreement regarding nitrogen (rework the current decree, ed.) These must be complied with,” N-VA is already warning.
Demir versus Rutten, that promises to be a blast in the Council of Ministers. But Rutten is calm for the time being: “The file has come a long way and now solutions must be sought in a very complicated whole.”
Even within Open Vld, a word of explanation will be needed from the party leadership. There was reportedly a commotion about her comeback in all kinds of WhatsApp groups from local departments on Tuesday evening. Quite a few liberals would have preferred to promote Senate President Stephanie D’Hose – the other candidate for Somers’ post. According to the rumor mill, also Somers himself.
In any case, the question remains whether all the drama of the past few weeks could simply have been avoided. Somers himself, of course, but Ongena and De Croo also knew when Van Quickenborne was dismissed that a nice Flemish seat would become available sooner or later. With a little skill, all that self-torture wouldn’t have been necessary, it seems. But Ongena said that it was really not certain if and when Somers would call it a day.
Ongena: “We shouldn’t be silly about it. We have had difficult moments. But this shows that when push comes to shove, Gwendolyn is someone who says: my party but also Flanders need me, so I will do this.”