Els Van Weert
© Jan 2001
Els Van WeertEls Van Weert has a political background: political involvement was a tradition in her family and it actually led her towards politics:
"There is not immediately one element that made me go into politics. I have to say that I grew up with politics. My father has been a member of the town council for about 20 years. Politics and the discussion on how society should evolve have always been central in our family, eg the news on tv and radio were always listened to or watched. And they also expected us children to listen or watch. Take the tv news during dinner: we followed the transmission, and afterwards we discussed it. The interest for politics is something that was provided at home and I have developed it further."
Her father also stimulated the children to become politically active: to join the youth section of the party. In the beginning she was not really interested in party politics, she was a member of the youth section of the party like she would have been of any club, but she was politically conscious:
"I've always taken up part of the responsibility for the group."
And she has always been involved in many organisations, been politically active, even if it was not party politics. She was involved in the youth movement, in the wereldwinkels (fair trade shops), and she has been the president of the student movement of her department.
She decided to enter politics, in the sense of party politics in 1991, when she became secretary of the party's youth section. She had been a member since the age of about 16, but never been very active. Why members of the party asked her to stand for the post? One of the candidates standing for the presidency of the youth section contacted her. He knew her, he knew her father, and her being a woman might certainly have played a role, too. She was one of the few women candidates. Her function as president of the student movement of her section had come to an end and she was ready for a new challenge.
"When they asked me I thought, yes, this is really something I would like to do now. I always needed something to be involved in, and the choice was quickly made at that time. There was a concrete possibility, I wanted to do something new because the other involvement came to an end and no matter what, I was strongly interested in politics."
However, she has spent a lot of time considering the choice of the party. There was no conscious change from grassroots to party politics in the sense that she seeked it. They asked her to stand. But this change to party politics was conscious in the sense that she developed an argumentation on whether and why to join the VU.
"I have thought a lot about the choice of the party. Especially if you studied political and social sciences, that was all very progressive en oriented towards the left. And when you said that you were interested in the Volksunie (Flemish regionalists), the others replied, but no, this is outmoded, this is no longer of our time. So I had to develop an argument and I've spent a lot of time considering my choice. On whether the party was progressive enough for me."
At that time the party actually underwent a change. Bert Anciaux became the party chairman. His vision of the party and his project for society was something Van Weert could fully approve and wanted to support. The fact that the party developed a societal project, that it became more than a community party. The Flemish nationalism contains good ideas, as long as it is not based on a feeling of superiority but of solidarity. And it is a necessary buffer for the Vlaams Blok (Flemish extreme right wing party).
"But being green would have been easier. Not from my family background, but the greens are more popular with the youth. Now the Volksunie starts to attract young people but 10 or 15 years ago the greens were the party of the youth."
Her father was to a certain extent a role model for her. His principles, his involvement. But he was not the only one. Bert Anciaux, the new party chairman was an important role model and mentor. Hiw way of dealing with people, or how to transmit a message. The same goes for Nelly Maes, who as a woman in political decision-making has been a very good example of how to remain yourself. She has learnt a lot from all of them, also in the negative sense. There are things that she does differently.
"Sometimes I said or thought: I wouldn't do this. My limits are different from theirs, but from that you also learn."
In 1992 she became a staff member of the party's study centre, in 1995 the spokeswoman of the party chairman Bert Anciaux and she remained in that function until she got elected in June 1999. She actually ran for a first time for the 1994 local and provincial elections. She had just moved to a new municipality, but she was involved in the local party. She stood out of solidarity for the party.
"I suppose they have asked me, but I thought it was evident to stand. Being the secretary of the youth section and a staff of the party."
The place she occupied was ineligible. At the next federal elections in 1999 things were different. The party was looking for a new candidate to head the list. During the two preceding federal elections the party had not won a seat and the person formerly leading the list was retiring. She had been stimulated to be a candidate for the first place on the list, but she was not the only one. The situation was not easy: she had not yet proven anything, and the other candidate had at least a famous name. But in the end the party decided at the national level to put her at the head of the list. What also played a role in this decision was the fact that she is a woman. Not at the local level, but at the national level it was an argument.
Since June 1999 she is a fulltime MP. There are three fields of action that Els Van Weert would specifically like to develop. The first is the issue of democratic renewal.
"One of the major challenges of the next century is partly how to involve people into politics, how to narrow this gap (between the people and politics) without being demagogic, without simplifying too much. How to have a societal debate with the people and how to draw the correct conclusions from this as a politician? This goes further than the actual discussion on direct democracy and the question of having a referendum from time to time. What is important to me is the issue of discussing again with the people. The key issue of the entire debate on political renewal is how to get the people to a point where they are willing to share part of the responsibility and to participate in the thinking and debating. A good mix between direct and representative democracy in which the societal debate regains an important place."
Another issue is equal opportunities. Van Weert is concerned about everything that has to do with equal opportunities. In a first instance concerning men and women, but also others, such as gays or lesbians. She is the chair of the parliamentary advisory committee on emancipation and tries to prepare the field for certain measures. The actual government contains both liberals and greens, if there is a moment to work on issues of discrimination towards gays and lesbians for instance, then it is now.
A third field of action is the issue of public health. Since the dioxine crisis she thinks that "our health and the health of our children should never again occupy but the second place after economic issues." In this framework she focuses on toxic products to treat wood.
All of these fields of action reflect well her political priorities.
Van Weert thinks that her former experience is very useful for her term as an MP. Having been the spokeswoman of the party chairman has taught her how to communciate briefly and clearly, when to bring an issue out, etc. She also thinks that this is one of her specific competencies. She also communicates easily and likes to discuss, and considers that she is able to convince people, which must be linked to the fact that she is passionate about her cause. People feel this.
The VU strives for parity on the electoral lists concerning the local and provincial elections of October 2000. Van Weert thinks that equal opportunity strategies are important in the sense that we won't make it without them.
"I think it is a difficult discussion. When I first entered politics I thought: well, all this isn't necessary, is it? We will make it our own way, this cannot be so difficult, we just have to prove ourselves. Now I realise that you always have to fight. There are established values and it is very difficult to get in. It will go very slowly if you do not in a way or another accelerate the process. The 1/3 rule (binding quota law) is a minimum but it at least makes parties look for women."
And they can be justified:
"I think that these mechanisms can be justified, also from a democratic point of view: our representatives have to represent the people, this has to be representative. Today our institutions are not representative and this is a weakening of democracy as such."
She hopes that one day these mechanisms will be superfluous but now they are more than necessary. And the actual mechanisms are not sufficient. Personally she pleads for a zipper principle, but how much time will it take us to get there? "Because who has to vote for this: all the men here in parliament, and it is they who feel threatened."
However, the major obstacle for women to enter politics is the distribution of roles within the household.
"In fact it is the distribution of roles in general that lies at the basis of why it is so problematic (for women to get active in politics): I have my household, I have my family. I have to get to my children, I have to get to my work. And then I should also get poltically involved? I just cannot combine all this. If it would be possible to beter distribute the reproductive tasks between man and woman, then they could both do something extra next to it."
Next to an unbalanced distribution of roles and tasks, Van Weert thinks that women also have a higher initial resistance, hesitate more when it comes to their own capacities and qualities. Finally she thinks that women get less support from their environment when they want to enter politics. One not only needs the support of a partner, but also of the larger environment. And women often get less support than men, and especially from other women.
"You therefore have to convince them of the importance to get involved in politics. And above all of the impact that politics has on our daily life, because many people pay too little attention to this."
Personally Van Weert thinks that she did not have to face any specific obstacles in politics. She has always been used to politics, and she has tried out a lot of things before entering party politics. Becoming the chair of a section of a student movement also involves running for elections.
"I have done all this before I entered party politics."
These were important experiences for her actual political career. Actually, her political career ensues from her previous professional activities, or, her entire active life was so far kind of a political career. She did not really pursue it, the circumstances made that she became a member of the study centre and later the party spokeswoman. But when they offered her a place on the electoral list, she did not say no, because it was in the line of her ambitions. Being an MP she considers to be a real job.
"This is my job, and I don't have any other occupations next to it. I think it's important that I can give everything for it."
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