“So you’d prefer a polluting car over living 13 months longer?” Christel doesn’t expect an answer to her incisive question – at least, not yet. We find the candidate in ChristenUnie-SGP’s tiny Rotterdam office, where she is preparing for a public debate that evening about sustainability. Christel will be representing ChristenUnie’s youth in a panel discussion with eight other political youth organisations in LantarenVenster. When we meet up afterwards, she has mixed feelings about how it went: “I ended up in a role that I usually don’t like to play.”
Because if anything, Christel wants to be someone who connects rather than divides. North and South, religious and non-religious, you and I: the spearhead for her party’s election campaign this year is ‘connection’. But the youth debate turns out to have little need for a builder of bridges. In fact, it’s remarkable how often the party representatives see eye to eye. Every once in a while, a JOVD or Jong Leefbaar Rotterdam speaker dismisses a proposal to improve local air quality as ‘a symbolic gesture’ or ‘too abstract’. When the Leefbaar speaker calls the debate a ‘non-discussion’, Christel seems taken by surprise by her own retort: “I think that by now, you’ve inhaled so much polluted air that you can no longer think straight’.
Although this confrontational style appears somewhat at odds with someone who describes herself as ‘a bit of a perfectionist’ and ‘balanced’, the barbed comment is indicative of her commitment to making Rotterdam a better place. A city that takes concrete steps forward when it comes to increasing sustainability, and a city where people have room to practice their faith. Because according to Christel, the latter activity is under pressure: “Increasingly often, you see people arguing to do away with certain things, simply because they’ve been marked as a religious affair; disallowing church services at a home in the neighbourhood, for example.” Rotterdam risks losing its multifaceted character. “You can’t take religion out of people. So as a city, you shouldn’t want to.”
Faith is an important part of Christel’s identity. In fact, it was one of the things that motivated her to become politically active when she was 18 – starting out at ChristenUnie’s local branch in Nieuwegein. And she remained involved with this Christian party after moving to Rotterdam for her studies. She became an active member of the party’s youth organisation, as well as working part-time for the Rotterdam party’s group staff. And when the party called for candidates for the upcoming Council elections, Christel decided to throw her hat in the ring.
And now, the 22-year-old Econometrics student is placed second on the party’s list of candidates: “I was amazed, and sincerely surprised by the news.” Still, this high spot doesn’t guarantee her of a seat on the Council. Because ChristenUnie-SGP’s support base in Rotterdam may be loyal, but it isn’t very large: for the past 60 years, the party has had to make do with a single seat. “Every four years, we hope to land a second seat; but this year, I really believe we’ll be getting it.” Christel is banking on ChristenUnie’s recent success in the national elections, as well as the large group of volunteers who work to land the party that second seat in Rotterdam. “It’s bizarre to see how motivated they are. What makes it even more special for me is that I’m the one who would get to fill that seat.”
Still, a lot of people don’t understand why Christel wants to get into politics. Although her ambitions were enthusiastically received by her friends – “Later on when you’re Prime Minister, I can tell people I had a beer with you at 3 in the morning” – they tend to meet with incomprehension among her fellow students. “Most Econometrics students are hoping for a career at a consultancy, bank or major corporation. Politics? Not interested.” According to Christel, they’re wrong to be so bemused. She sees clear similarities between Econometrics and politics – looking for smart solutions for problems, for one thing. But doesn’t politics usually boil down to questioning each other’s ‘smart solutions’ and – even worse – calling each other’s ‘problems’ into doubt?
But that’s precisely what makes it so interesting, according to Christel: “The fact that by slightly rephrasing that one sentence, you can persuade someone of your point without having to make any concessions yourself.” She is aware that young people don’t have much sympathy for ‘political games’; research by Vrij Nederland shows that nearly three-quarters of Dutch youth indicate that they ‘don’t trust politicians very much’ or ‘not at all’. “I think this is an incredibly bad trend. I understand that most people’s idea of fun isn’t watching an entire Council meeting, but the least we could expect is some basic knowledge about the political process. The fact that it amounts to more than just ‘I like that guy’s smile, so I trust him’. I mean, you’re voting someone in for four years.”