Meet the ‘pit bull in high heels’ refugee vying for premiership in Holland

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, of Turkish-Kurdish origin, wants to limit the number of Dutch migrants

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius wants to become the first female Dutch Prime Minister. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

A “pit bull in high heels”?

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, the refugee who wants to become the first female Dutch Prime Minister, looked down at her red heels peeking under her green suit and laughed.

The widely reported description certainly is accurate, the 46-year old politician told The National.

“Yes, I love dogs, and I love high heels,” she said, as she mingled with a crowd in the outskirts of the southern city of Eindhoven after a political debate with six other candidates organised by public broadcaster Omroep Zeeland.

The recently appointed leader of the centre-right VVD political party embraced her reputation of a hardliner on migration despite fleeing Turkey with her Kurdish family when she was eight years old.

The latest polls show that her party is leading in Wednesday's election along with the far-right PVV.

“It's true, I was not born here in the Netherlands,” she said. She had “an interesting path", she added.

“At the same time, I see the problems we have in this country, and one of those problems is the fact that too many people are coming to the Netherlands,” she said.

For many Dutch voters, the fact that she is a former refugee who wants to limit the number of migrants in the country gives her extra credibility to be at the forefront on the debate on migration, a polarising topic which caused the collapse of the government in July.

“It helps,” said 22-year old Sanne, who had a brief chat with Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius after Saturday's debate.

She said that she had been uncertain about whether she should vote for the centrist party D66 or for the VVD but had been convinced by Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius' performance.

A self-made politician, Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius is an inspiration for many women. “It's time that a woman becomes prime minister,” said Sanne.

Like many in the country, Sanne's biggest worry is the housing crisis.

“I'm still young and whoever I'll vote for will decide our next four years. By the time it finishes, I'll be 26 and I'd like a house and maybe children,” she said.

Others in the crowd had mixed feelings about Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius ideas.

“I'd be happy if she were to become Prime Minister, but she's not my first choice,” said Yolanda, 56, who showed a preference for left-wing politician Frans Timmermans.

“I think we need more economic migrants,” said Yolanda, pointing at labour shortages across various sectors in the country.

In her defence, Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius highlighted the difference between economic migrants and refugees. “We are failing true refugees right now because we cannot organise proper shelter and housing for them,” she said.

Housing crisis

There has been a dearth of space to accommodate asylum seekers in the Netherlands in part fuelled by the housing crisis which has forced many to sleep rough.

“Right now, too many people are coming because of our laws and regulations are more attractive than in countries surrounding us, and in the end, you might wonder if they are true refugees,” said Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius.

She said that the over 200,000 arrivals last year was “too much” and wants to lower the number of asylum seekers, economic workers and international students.

But unlike other politicians, the VVD leader has refused to say what number of arrivals would satisfy her.

She described the figure put forward by rival candidate Peter Omtzigt of 50,000 arrivals a year as “very high.”

The much lower number of 15,000 arrivals a year, as suggested by the Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BBB, is also unrealistic, said Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius.

“They cannot tell you how to get to that number,” she said.

But “closing the borders”, which is what PVV's leader Geert Wilders wants, “would ruin the whole of the Netherlands,” she said.

It is a discussion that Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius will probably have to continue focusing on.

Mr Wilders increasingly appears as a likely candidate to help form a right-wing coalition government.

“There is a clear right-wing majority,” said Marcel Hanegraaff, associate professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam.

Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius has signalled in the past that she would be willing to work with Mr Wilders, unlike some centrist and left-wing politicians.

Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius “has said, why not, if he tones down his [anti-Islam and anti-migrant] message,” said Mr Hanegraaff – which he has, in what many describe as an attempt to appear more acceptable.

It remains to be seen whether this is something that the pit-bull politician can pull off.

Updated: November 20, 2023, 2:43 PM