Netherlands
Profile Sigrid Kaag - Atypical Times Call for Atypical Leaders

Sigrid Kaag
Die Vorsitzende der sozialliberale Partei D66, Sigrid Kaag. © picture alliance / ROBIN UTRECHT | ROBIN UTRECHT

After the closing of the ballot boxes in the Dutch general elections on 17 March, the first exit polls indicated a surprise in the making. Following a steady climb in the polls, social liberal party D66 managed to become the second biggest party in the country. Led by new party leader Sigrid Kaag, the social liberals gained 24 seats in the Dutch parliament (15%, up from 12,2% in 2017), on par with the previous record performance in 1994 under party founder Hans van Mierlo. On top of that, the election result also made D66 the second biggest party in the Dutch parliament for the first time in its history.

Many observers saw a key role for Sigrid Kaag in the election win. The party benefited from a clear manifesto and good timing of its messages, but above all, a very strong performance of Kaag in the campaign. Against the odds, she successfully presented herself as a challenger to Prime Minister Mark Rutte and positioned herself as a strong candidate for the leadership.

 

Newcomer in Dutch Politics

When Kaag was elected as the new D66 party leader on 4 September 2020, she was still relatively unknown to the public. As the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation in the third Rutte Cabinet, she had a well-positioned, yet hardly visible, post in the Dutch government. Nonetheless, Kaag enjoyed popular support within the party and won the leadership election comfortably with 95.7% of the votes.

In both the party leadership and the parliamentary elections, Kaag was considered an atypical candidate. The start of her tenure as trade minister in 2017 meant her political debut in the Netherlands, as she did not hold public office before. Although it is not unusual for ministers to be appointed without any political background, it rarely happens that they subsequently become party leaders. This was even more exceptional because Kaag had to re-register as a party member in 2017 (she was previously a member between 2009 and 2013). However, in a little over three years, Kaag slowly built up her profile within the party and started to feature in national discussions.

 

Decades Abroad

Although the environment was new for her, the adaptation process was certainly not. Changing to new circumstances runs like a common thread through Kaag’s career. She grew up in the Netherlands, but after finishing high school and one year of university studies in Utrecht, left for Cairo as a twenty-year old to study Arabic and Middle East Studies. This was the start of a decades-long international career of her working abroad. After further studies in Oxford and Exeter, she briefly worked for Shell and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before joining the United Nations (UN).

At the UN, Kaag held numerous posts in the Middle East, East Africa, New York and Geneva, before becoming the UN Under-Secretary-General in charge of the mission to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria from 2013 to 2014. Following the successful completion of this mission, she became the UN Under-Secretary-General in Lebanon until her appointment as minister for trade and development cooperation.

As an experienced diplomat (Kaag speaks six languages, including fluent Arabic), she was well suited for the ministerial post. Although her background suggests a closer affinity with the development cooperation part of her portfolio, she seized on the trade files to showcase her liberal and internationalist credentials ("Acting tough behind the dykes will not get you anywhere"). Kaag was a strong proponent of the CETA trade agreement between the EU and Canada and, amid strong opposition, managed to secure a narrow majority in parliament for its ratification.

Despite her good track record as trade minister, few people would have predicted the election success. Without prominent visibility in the coronavirus response, D66 initially struggled to find traction. But after a slow start, Kaag picked up momentum after strong performances in a series of TV debates. Polling went up steadily to around 10% during the days before the election and support eventually shot up to 15% in the final results.

 

New Political Culture

One explanation for the popular appeal is precisely Kaag’s unconventional background. Atypical times call for atypical leaders and Sigrid Kaag seemed to embody the D66 message that it was time for new leadership. Coupled with a progressive agenda and well-timed plans to lead the country out of the Coronavirus pandemic, her candidature was a refreshing element in an otherwise unremarkable election campaign. 

As a relatively new politician, Kaag campaigned on the promise of new leadership. After the elections, this promise has become even more pertinent, as the formation process for a new coalition government descended into chaos in a matter of days. Prime Minister Mark Rutte narrowly survived a no-confidence vote after accusations of lying about moves to sideline a critical MP. Following the government’s resignation in January over a childcare benefits scandal, this led to a new political crisis and created a rift between several possible coalition partners.

The political crisis has started a broader debate about the need to for a new political culture in the Netherlands. As an inevitable coalition partner in every possible composition, Kaag now finds herself in the driver seat in this process of democratic renewal. With uncertainties abound, it is difficult to foresee what the way forward will look like in a fractured and fragmented political landscape. But with decades of negotiation experience in some of the most difficult areas of the world, it would be difficult to imagine someone better suited for the task at hand.

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Helena von Hardenberg
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