Google minister Dilan Yesilgöz-Zegerius (Justice and Security, VVD) and you know her dog’s name (Moos), what her home in Amsterdam looks like, that she is a fan of Ajax and mafia series The Sopranos. You can read that she loves country music and feels like she’s actually from the US state of Georgia (but she doesn’t believe in reincarnation). She has Werlhof’s disease, an autoimmune disease from which she has little trouble in daily life after an operation – her spleen was removed. And she has a tattoo on her wrist: her grandmother’s name, Sara. You will also find her flight story; in the eighties Yesilgöz, her parents and sister fled from Turkey to the Netherlands.
She also shows that openness in her management style. This month marks one year since Dilan Yesilgöz (45) took office as Minister of Justice and Security in the Rutte IV cabinet. People who work with her call her management style refreshing: she is “authentic”, is “open and vulnerable”. That was different with previous justice ministers, it sounds. For example, her predecessor Ferd Grapperhaus could act “from the heights”. They also think that Yesilgöz is well prepared so far.
When it became known that Yesilgöz would become Minister of Justice, she received quite a bit of criticism. She is the first justice minister since 1814 who is not a lawyer. In other departments it is more common for ministers not to be authorities in their field than in the ‘heavy’ Ministry of Justice and Security. Lawyers reacted critically to her appointment in the media. “I am afraid that this minister will rely more on the coalition agreement and the VVD course than on her officials,” said lawyer Job Knoester in talk show in January last year. m.
“I understood the criticism at the time, but so far I do not think it is a loss,” says Member of Parliament and lawyer Michiel van Nispen. He has been speaking on behalf of the SP since 2014 on justice and security. Van Nispen has the impression that Yesilgöz is well informed and understands what she is talking about. “And she is really open to ideas and criticism from the Chamber, without first erecting all kinds of lines of defense.”
Jan Struijs also thinks that Yesilgöz is “fair to good” in her files. He refers to the police-related files. As chairman of NPB, the largest police union in the Netherlands, he has a lot of contact with Yesilgöz about police matters. If she doesn’t understand something, she just asks. Vulnerability is her strength,” says Struijs. “Then she says: ‘Sorry Jan, I’m asking for the sixth time now’. Then I explain it again and she says: ‘Yes, now the penny drops, now I get it’.”
One of the biggest challenges that Yesilgöz faces as minister is the fight against organized (drug) crime, which has gained a lot of ground in the Netherlands in recent decades. In April, she wrote in a letter to Parliament that combating it “in the coming period” will be her “top priority”. As a minister, Yesilgöz is therefore very involved with the police. There are also major staff shortages and the National Unit – which deals with organized crime – is struggling internally with problems such as failing leadership, bullying and suicides by police officers.
Yesilgöz often stands up for police officers in public. Most recently, in the House of Representatives, during a collision with Sylvana Simons (BIJ1). According to Simons, the police deliberately disadvantaged anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators. Like Simons, Yesilgöz said she was annoyed. “I will not let my police officers be portrayed as if they are deliberately approaching civilians to beat them up,” she said vehemently.
“I have never seen a minister who is as popular with the police as Yesilgöz,” says Struijs. He has been chairman of the NPB for six years now, before that he worked for the police for 35 years in various positions. “Police officers like clear language, and Yesilgöz speaks it. She handles the problems at the police well and she often goes on working visits. When I happen to be in the same place three weeks later, they are still talking about her.” According to Struijs, the minister receives many direct e-mails from agents. During the World Cup, for example, they wrote to her about their performance during the riots around the World Cup, which they found difficult. “That’s the price of her approachability; she is approached a lot.”
In a video on the YouTube channel of the Ministry of Justice and Security, Yesilgöz says that she likes going on a working visit the best thing about her job. She would actually like to do that more. During a working visit, she “does not want PowerPoint presentations or sit in an office”, but “just go out with the people”.
When they were still living in Turkey, Yesilgöz’s Kurdish father and Turkish mother fought for equal rights for women and Kurds, among others. As a result, they had to flee from the Turkish authorities. When she started to orient herself politically in the Netherlands, Yesilgöz first sought to join left-wing parties because of her parents’ background. At nineteen she became a member of the SP, later she was active for GroenLinks and then for the PvdA. She was gone quickly at every game; as a liberal she did not feel at home there.
No great file knowledge, compelling speeches and sharp interruptions, but she was fearless, resolute and energetic
“I do see liberal spirits in left-wing parties, individuals, but those parties still exist by the grace of saving others. So there must be victims and they are often people born elsewhere,” Yesilgöz said in December 2021 in an interview with Fidelity. “My parents’ struggle has always been aimed at freedom and responsibility, and that was called the left in Turkey. I wanted to commit myself to that core of liberalism and that is why I chose the VVD.”
When Yesilgöz was a member of the Amsterdam city council and parliament for the VVD, she was seen by some as right-wing populist. She liked to work with the simple reasoning ‘if A, then B’. A often involved a violation of the law, and B usually stood for ‘tackling hard’. Squatting was forbidden (A), so squatters had to be dealt with “much harder” (B). Yesilgöz also liked to keep more complex problems simple. “The VVD is pragmatic about the fact that the Iraqi courts still use the death penalty in some cases,” she said after announcing that she did not want Dutch IS women to be tried in the Netherlands.
Even when she was a council member, she was allowed to voice her opinions very regularly on national television, which is unusual for a local politician. “She knows the emotions and interests of her voters well and is good at expressing what they think and feel,” says Yoeri Albrecht, director of the Amsterdam debate center De Balie. Together with Yesilgöz he was a regular commentator on talk show in 2015 and 2016 Studio PowNed. “But populism goes further in my eyes. Then you always promise your voters things that you cannot keep. And she didn’t.”
Populist or not, Yesilgöz is certainly politically useful. She was already seen as a good debater in the city council. Not so much in terms of content, but in terms of style, say political opponents who were on the council with her at the time. No great file knowledge, compelling speeches and sharp interruptions, but she was fearless, resolute and energetic. Incidentally, she just did her “homework” and is intelligent, it is said, but she clearly had more fun in politics than she was a file eater.
As a minister, Yesilgöz has a lot less room to be political, but she is not afraid to occasionally show (party) colors in this role as well. That’s what she said last November The Telegraph: “The discussion about legalizing hard drugs is fun for a drink. I don’t have time for this kind of philosophical discussion.” The VVD is opposed to legalizing hard drugs.
Also last September during her HJ Schoo lecture – the unofficial opening of the parliamentary year, organized by the weekly EW – Yesilgöz interpreted the VVD sound. It was a long speech, but in the media’s opinion corners supporters and opponents mainly went wild over what she had said about ‘wokism’. “Our free society needs open debate, that is our oxygen […] Man or woman: find some balls and be resilient, I would say. In an open society you have to develop a shield.”
According to Laura Huisman, deputy head of information for the VVD, the Schoo lecture was really Yesilgöz’s ‘own story’, including the part about ‘woke’. “I didn’t read the speech until she had written it completely. After that, I only proposed to pay extra attention to certain party political elements here and there.”
Yet the question remains whether Yesilgöz as a politician is not mainly a cog in the VVD machine. She has moved up the ranks in the party very quickly; in 2014 she started her political career as a municipal councillor. Moreover, she always has the VVD line of law and order followed.
“I never heard her express a firm opinion in group meetings that was not of the VVD,” says former party member in Amsterdam Daniël van der Ree. “While other colleagues did with some regularity. Of course I can’t look into her head, but if you are very ambitious – and she was – then you may also conform more to the organization you work in.”
Most of those NRC spoke for this profile, however, have the idea that Yesilgöz is mainly authentic. They say that she herself was really convinced of what she proclaimed as a politician in debate halls and interviews, although she perhaps expressed it in a more oversimplified way.
Yesilgöz saves her soft and caring side for behind the scenes. As a Member of Parliament, for example, she wrote Sinterklaas poems for her employees after a hectic period, says Alyssa Voorwald, who was Yesilgöz’s personal assistant in 2017 and 2018.
Jan Struijs says that he recently had “some kind of consultation” with Yesilgöz and that she then straightened his shirt and adjusted his jacket. “Do you pay attention to your clothing line, Jan?” says Yesilgöz, who always looks great himself. At the Prinsjesdag drink last September, she pulled girlfriend Marja Ruigrok aside. Ruigrok was leader of the Amsterdam VVD in Yesilgöz’s time as a council member. “I was not comfortable in my skin and got her full attention. She gave me good advice, very nice. While she was there as a minister and actually had to go back into the crowd.”
Yesilgöz is seen within the VVD as one of the potential successors to Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Annemarie Jorritsma, VVD party leader in the Senate, confirms this. “She is a great talent.” Out research of One today last June it turned out that VVD voters also see her that way: after former chairman of the Lower House party Klaas Dijkhoff and Upper House candidate Edith Schippers, voters consider Yesilgöz to be the most suitable successor to Rutte.
Whether Yesilgöz himself has ambitions to become prime minister is not clear. But it is also wiser to remain silent about such an ambition in The Hague, otherwise you may not get what you want. In Amsterdam, even very dear colleagues did not know whether she wanted to go to The Hague. Within a few years it was time.