Gwendolyn Rutten, of all people, who a few weeks ago angrily slammed the door of national politics in the face of her own party leadership, replaces Bart Somers as Minister of Society and Deputy Prime Minister for Open Vld in the Flemish government. Bart Eeckhout analyzes that comeback.
Hello Bart, here we are again. We have to talk about Open Vld again: Gwendolyn Rutten will become minister after all. Hadn’t she just walked out angry?
“She most certainly was. I’m not going to lie: when our colleagues Stavros Kelepouris and Jeroen Van Horenbeek were the first to report the Rutten line of thinking yesterday afternoon, my first reaction was that it was gossip to mislead journalists. When various sources in the party leadership confirmed that it was serious, I still didn’t want to believe it. Anyway, here we are now, with a new deputy prime minister who only a week or two or three ago had angrily quit national politics because she was not allowed to become a minister in the federal government.
“I’m looking at this with wide eyes. Anyone who follows Open Vld is somewhat familiar, but this is unprecedented. First, Bart Somers resigns, the main reason being that he wants to have his hands free to launch himself as a candidate mayor in Mechelen. That has already happened, with a new local party name and whatever you want. And now he is being succeeded by the politician who vowed to withdraw from local politics because she was tired of the mean games of the national party leadership. She upset her entire party with this, but that is all forgiven and forgotten.”
How did the party leadership end up with Rutten?
“There are three reasons. The first is that this offers an opportunity to settle the nasty row between her and the de facto party chief, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. That feud, with peaks and valleys, has actually lasted their entire political career. Until it exploded when Vincent Van Quickenborne had to be replaced in the federal government and Rutten hoped in vain for the post. That argument reflected on De Croo’s somewhat cold image, and this is an opportunity to make it a bit warmer.
“Two: Rutten has experience in the Flemish Parliament and also in the thorny dossier par excellence that is now on the government table: nitrogen. And three: she can then again draw the list in Flemish Brabant, where three seats in the Flemish Parliament are at stake for the party. That’s why she was given preference by the newer name, Stefanie D’Hose. It was also in the running, but comes from the liberal, heavily populated province of East Flanders.”
You already mentioned nitrogen. That will be her most important assignment?
“Rutten is not authorized to do this herself, but as a ‘vice’ she will help make the final decision. And it can be said that she has really committed herself to the file, as she has also done in some education files. This maneuver is very unexpected, but it does not detract from Rutten’s merit as a member of the Flemish Parliament. There she showed herself to be a strong and reasonably independent representative of the people. For example, also in the nitrogen issue, where she initially concerned the fate of the farm of the Abbey of Averbode, near her hometown of Aarschot. It now remains to be seen how she will position herself at the government table. Her predecessor Somers was the man of compromise, Rutten has a more pronounced idea on the issue, which is close to the critical attitude of CD&V. That could become annoying for N-VA and for cohesion in the government.”
Didn’t Bart Somers say that his successor would be a new voice from the young generation?
“Making way for young people was even one of the motivations he gave for leaving the government. This is, with all due respect, just embarrassing, and not just for the young liberals who were hoping for some recognition and advancement. This leaves a very bad taste about how some politicians or parties handle political office. This looks more like a bunch of children who think they can choose their favorite candy in the candy store – sometimes minister, then mayor – and who walk away angry when they don’t get their way. That sounds harsh, but if politicians want citizens to regain more confidence in politics, they must of course first show that they are worthy of that trust.”
Has Gwendolyn Rutten given an explanation for her very surprising comeback?
“Not really, and actually that’s to her credit. “Things can change” and “That’s life,” she said at her first press conference. So she didn’t want to hide the fact that this all happened very strangely. It is quite ironic that at the end of the legislature, Rutten ends up in the seat that was actually reserved for her from the start. After the Flemish government negotiations, the intention was that she, then still as chairman, would join the government, just like Wouter Beke and Jan Jambon. Rutten ultimately passed, because she hoped that she could lead a Vivaldi-like coalition federally. That turned out differently: the Open Vld leaders with De Croo first blocked her initiative, after which De Croo himself would eventually become prime minister of a similar coalition. It was one of conflicts between De Croo and Rutten.”
Could this be a good thing for Open Vld after all?
“Hmm, anyone who dropped out of the party because it only seems to be concerned with itself will have seen that image confirmed. Perhaps peace can now return, and there is still some work to be done in the coming months, but it will be a steep uphill battle for Open Vld.
“It remains strange that Open VLD chairman Tom Ongena allowed that open clash to happen only to eventually opt for reconciliation again a little later. If Bart Somers had indicated for months that he was looking forward to saying goodbye, the party leadership could have made that move much more gallantly after the exit of Van Quickenborne and the entry of newcomer Paul Van Tigchelt.”