The Netherlands is heading to the polls next week in an election that will decide its new prime minister. There’s just one problem: The man who’s been leading the race doesn’t seem very keen on the job.
Pieter Omtzigt only founded his New Social Contract (NSC) three months ago, but has been topping the polls in the closely fought campaign for weeks.
Traditionally the largest party in the highly-fragmented parliament provides the candidate for premier, and that person is almost always the party leader. But Omtzigt has been vague about his intentions, leaving the door open to 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. “By the way, I think it’s also very valuable for my political antenna to be on a soccer field or in a church or at a school once in a while.”
Even so, his reticence is rare.
“It is very unusual, so far in the campaign for the biggest party not to say who might be the next prime minister when they win,” said Sarah de Lange, a politics professor at the University of Amsterdam.
So who is Omtzigt and what is he doing?
The 49 year-old was instrumental in uncovering a child benefits scandal that brought down Mark Rutte’s third government, which included his former party, at the end of 2020. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of the establishment.
In a long memo after that episode, Omtzigt listed all the abusive words fellow party members had used to describe him. They ranged from “jerk” to “psychopath” and “sick man.”
Such a draining campaign on the child benefits scandal led to months of burnout. But it also cemented his image as an idealistic warrior who challenges the prevailing order and cannot be silenced under pressure.
“I am not a messiah, but I think I offer realistic policies,” he has said.
Even though his party is new, Omtzigt has been in the House of Representatives for twenty years — almost his entire working life. The first eighteen years he spent in the Christian Democratic Appeal, a traditional party of government, before quitting to work as a lone politician. He is an econometrician by training, and studied in the U.K. and Italy.
Omtzigt has said after some insistence that he doubts whether the position of prime minister can be carried out by a father of four living in Enschede, a city 200 kilometers east of The Hague. He also confessed to being surprised by the success of his party and thus the potential opportunity to become PM.
He has been questioned on whether he is fit enough for the job after his burnout a few years ago. “I’ve learned from it and I’ve changed things,” he replied, adding that he goes to the gym a few times a week and volunteers as a referee at his local football club in Enschede. At the same time, Omtzigt said, he has learned to guard his limits more carefully. That also means that he has abstained from several debates during the campaign.
The latest POLITICO Poll of Polls 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 at 16 percent. That means that the formation of a successful coalition is likely to require at least two of the leading three parties, in addition to two or more smaller parties.
After thirteen years of coalitions headed by Rutte, voters now crave something different, said De Lange. “Under the leadership of Mark Rutte, a culture has emerged in which there is little transparency in the cabinet and few repercussions to mistakes.” As a result, public trust in the Hague is at a 10-year low.
In a country that wants a fresh start, Omtzigt has an attractive resume. In recent years he has become the anti-Rutte, seen by voters as trustworthy and tenacious, she added.
Apart from Omtzigt, those vying to replace Rutte include 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. On economics, he advocates higher taxes on the rich, stronger workers’ rights and an increased minimum wage. However, he is a supporter of rightwing policies when it comes to migration and ethical issues, such as abortion and transgender rights.
The main promise of the NSC is the reform of the state by introducing a constitutional court to oversee politicians, and electoral reform that would see voters pick candidates for constituencies rather than from national lists.
Having held roles in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Omtzigt said he’s in favor of European cooperation but doesn’t support an ever-closer union.
“NSC wants to remain an active player within the EU, although there will sometimes be differences in emphasis as compared to the previous administration,” Caspar Veldkamp, a candidate for NSC and director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, told POLITICO by text message.
“We want the EU to have a firmer outward focus, aimed at threats in the world, strengthening external borders and developing a stable belt around Europe. Within the EU, we attach great importance to placing powers at the lowest possible level, subsidiarity in short,” said Veldkamp, a former ambassador to Israel and Greece.
One of the key points of the NSC agenda is the introduction of a legal mechanism that would compel the government to respect the opinion of the Dutch parliament when voting on legislative proposals at the EU level. The party also advocates a bloc-wide return to the stricter, pre-corona rules on members’ debt and deficit ratios.
“European cooperation benefits from member states that have their own governance and budget in order. Temporary support in special cases is conceivable, but a permanent flow of funding is not healthy and undermines support for European integration in many member states, such as the Netherlands,” Veldkamp said.