“Would you like to discuss some politics?” Elene asks cheerfully through the intercom. She has just rung a bell at a student house near Eendrachtsplein. The connection is broken, and the door remains shut. It’s not the first time this has happened during this evening’s canvassing session, but Elene will not let it deter her. Letterboxes with stickers on them that state the residents welcome DM receive election flyers, while the odd person who does open the door is treated to a conversation. You see, the 25-year-old aspiring municipal councillor wants to talk to students about their Rotterdam.
Forget unprofessionally edited videos and pushy advertisements on your timeline. A student with political ambitions who shows up on your doorstep on a rainy Monday evening to discuss politics with you – now that is real campaigning.
Frankness and honesty
Other young politicians might find this awkward and nerve-racking, but it’s a style that suits Elene: frankness, honesty and guts. For instance, as a 23-year-old, in her capacity as the chairperson of the Young Democrats (D66’s youth wing), she challenged the party’s leader, Alexander Pechtold, at the annual party conference to go against popular notions more often: “Don’t put your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la when others annoy you.” D66’s youth wing familiarised her with the ins and outs of politics. Being its chair, she became the voice for over six thousand youngsters. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to know how I, a 23-year-old whippersnapper, felt about things. That was really bizarre.”
The ‘whippersnapper’ grew up in the rural Hoeksche Waard region, in an artistic family where she was brought up on a menu of free-thinking and liberalism. When she moved to Rotterdam at age 18, she decided to join the local branch of the Young Democrats. “I soon realised that the things I was saying weren’t all that bad. I suddenly realised that MPs in the Lower House don’t necessarily have abilities that I lack.” She is silent for a moment, then rings a bell at the next student house. “So then I thought, well, I might as well go to go all out and do this.”
White old boys’ network
The Master’s student in Public Administration decided to stand for Rotterdam municipal councillor. Following a successful internal election campaign (at D66, lists of candidates are drawn up by members), she was given the fifth spot on the list of D66 candidates. Elene will promote the rights of the nearly 190,000 Rotterdammers who are aged under 25. For this reason, she is touring the city at night to provide young people with a listening ear, because she feels young people aren’t really being heard, let alone represented. “It’s an absolute disgrace that we have been governed for four years by nothing but white old men. We’re not going to let that happen, right, in a city like Rotterdam?” She spreads her arms, seemingly pointing at the heads depicted on the photo banners that have been attached to street lights all over the city.
Apart from the Mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, all the outgoing councillors are white males. D66, being a coalition partner, joined them in this, but Elene is adamant that such a council will not pass muster again if her own party is once again to co-govern Rotterdam. “I definitely wouldn’t accept another four years like that. I want as many female councillors as male councillors, and I want younger councillors.” You see, Elene feels there is a great need for younger councillors, since the ‘white old boys’ network’ tends to ignore matters close to young people’s hearts. “They are always talking about the housing market and pensions, and not enough about the opening hours of pubs, houses for young professionals and sustainability.”
Elene gets quite heated when it comes to the masculinity of the world of politics, outside the city hall as well as inside it. She regularly experiences it for herself. For instance, a little while ago, the organisers of a debate in which she was to take part believed she was a visitor. And when she served as the Young Democrats’ chairperson, people often believed that her political secretary – ‘a big man with a heavy voice’ – rather than herself was the chair. “I do really get mad about that – about having to prove myself more than young males. I’ll never really get used to that.”
While distributing a final pile of flyers across the letterboxes of the Caland student housing complex, Elene says she hopes to shake up Rotterdam politics after 21 March. She understands that she has hitherto been in the ‘luxurious position’ of ‘being able to yell whatever I want’. “I will now end up in situations in which I will have to compromise. That frustrates me, but I know that’s how these things work.” She says she has gained a better understanding of pragmatism, although it frequently runs counter to her ideals: “Collaboration is the hardest thing about politics. Politicians should be much more straightforward about that.”