Rotterdam got this week-end a new mayor. Ivo Opstelten, the former VVD (conservative) mayor was leaving, and the gemeenteraad (city council, in Dutch) chose for a man from its main party ranks, the PvdA (Labour). Usually, debates on this type of choice turn around the fact that there is no popular vote for mayors under the Dutch grondwet (constitution). But this time, it's a whole other sort of criticism that erupted. You see, the new mayor is Morrocan born and double nationality holder Ahmed Aboutaleb, Amsterdamer, Muslim and former State Secretary for Social Affairs.
And that was a bit too much for the second Rotterdam's party: Leefbar Rotterdam, an ultra-conservative and anti-immigrant group, heir to the late maverick character, Pim Fortuyn. It was clearly his shadow that was hovering above the town hall this week-end, if you believe his angry supporters. Right wing Marco Pastors and Ron Sorensen both were angrily reacting to the nomination (and very likely confirmation by Queen Beatrix) of the new mayor. To say that they have difficulty to swallow such a choice is an understatement. In terms carefully chosen to avoid any accusation of racism, they both denounced the nomination.
For both of them, the convenient excuse is that Aboutaleb would probably never have been chosen as mayor, should the choice be made by popular vote. And they do have a point there. The choice of mayors in the Dutch system never was very democratic (despite recent attempts) and is more a soup of tit for tat agreements between the ruling coalition parties. Aboutaleb choice is that too (he hadn't got the Ministry he was looking for during the current government negotiations). But it is clearly also a lot more. Beyond the obvious symbol and the controversial message sent to the (massive) immigrant population in the Netherlands that they are welcome indeed, there is also the choice for a very strong, popular and skilled character.
Aboutaleb might be the Muslim son of a Moroccan imam, he is also very articulate and well educated, a long time journalist and civil servant, later becoming a politician. He is certainly not new to politics, having fenced on the seats of the Twede Kamer (the Dutch Lower House) against PvVer (extreme right wing) Gert Wilders or VVDer "Iron" Rita Verdonk. He was also already famous for having publicly and strongly declared that young immigrants (regardless of their culture of origin) should accept Dutch culture, ways and mentality or "pack and go home". A declaration, made after the gruesome assassination of right wing film maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan terrorist, that hadn't win him much slack with most Muslim fundamentalists but had won him the respect of most Dutch people.
I don't know Aboutaleb personally, but I certainly know his reputation and his ideas. While I might not agree with him on everything (he remains a socialist and a Muslim, after all), I certainly appreciate the choice of a skillful and courageous politician as new mayor. It is clearly also a very good choice for a city which has alledgedly a majority of its population coming from abroad (me included). So, Ahmed Aboutaleb, welcome to Rotterdam and go for it!