New Labour leader Cohen: hard man, soft touch

Job Cohen announced he would be seeking Labour's top spot on Friday.

By Wubby Luyendijk and Karel Berkhout

Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam, announced on Friday he hoped to be leading the Dutch Labour Party in the next elections. What kind of leader is he?

When Job Cohen (62), deputy minister of justice in 2000, wanted to leave the post to take up the mayorship of Amsterdam, Labour’s leadership tried to block his appointment there. As minister of home affairs, fellow Labour member Klaas de Vries was responsible for filling the post, but prime minister Wim Kok and Labour’s leader in parliament Ad Melkert asked him not to choose Cohen. Not because they considered him unfit for the job, quite the contrary. He would be too sorely missed in The Hague. “I said: ‘Sorry, but as a minister I have to appoint the best possible mayor.’ That turned out to be Cohen,” De Vries recalled.

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Cohen, who has since built a reputation as a conciliatory figure in Dutch politics, – too conciliatory for some tastes - announced on Friday he would be seeking his party’s leadership after former finance minister Wouter Bos stepped down from Labour’s top spot, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Sorely missed in Amsterdam

With no opposition candidates as yet, Cohen looks set to return to The Hague. He has already tendered his resignation as mayor of Amsterdam to Queen Beatrix. Again, many of those left behind would rather see him stay. “He is leaving at the worst possible moment,” said local right-wing liberal VVD leader, Eric van der Burg. “A new governing coalition is being formed and great cutbacks are underway.” Lodewijk Asscher, Amsterdam’s Labour leader, called Cohen’s departure a “shock” and a “loss,” but he was quick to add a different sentiment, one that resounded throughout the Netherlands this weekend. “He might be able to give the same things to the Netherlands he has given us here: his ability to unite people, his courage and his empathy,” Asscher said.

“In Amsterdam, Job Cohen has been able to hold an adversarial public debate without being divisive. He will be doing the same in national politics,” said former minister and Labour member, Eberhard van der Laan. Former party chairman Felix Rottenberg added that in these polarised times, authority rested naturally with people like Cohen. “In Amsterdam, he has proven to be a credible and effective reconciler,” Rottenberg said.

Cohen was put to the test only months after his appointment as Amsterdam’s mayor, when the events of 9/11 left the city in uproar. Under his tenure, the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was killed by an Islamic fundamentalist, and houses shifted on their foundations as the ground moved below Amsterdam’s feet due to the construction of a new metro tunnel. Paramedics were beaten by Moroccan boys and the city turned into a hotbed of Muslim terrorism.

Hard man, soft touch

Throughout it all, Cohen was able to be both soft and tough at the same time. His response proved he was in possession of both a cool head and a warm heart. He emerged as a crime fighter, came out in support of a new policy which allowed the police to frisk people on the street at random, and joined hardliners in seeking a tough course of action against young Moroccan criminals in the city’s western districts. But he also visited angry Muslim students and imams, looking for reconciliation. This policy was ridiculed by his political opponents, who mocked its perceived lack of effectiveness, calling it “drinking tea”. Cohen himself saw it as his mission to “prevent things from falling apart,” as he had announced at his inauguration.

In a city that is home to 170 different nationalities, both rich and poor, the mayor wanted to prevent any further divisiveness. His first speech as prospective Labour leader, which mentioned “safety, reconciliation and civilisation,” must have sounded familiar to many in Amsterdam.

Tough when he needs to be

When a bomb scare left the city stricken with fear last year, “Cohen did not hesitate to take tough measures,” public prosecutor Herman Bolhaar recalled. A number of suspects were arrested who later turned out to be innocent. Cohen met with them at his official residence. “By doing so he made it possible to deal with the fallout of the tough measures taken,” said Bolhaar. The Hague mayor Jozias van Aartsen called this ‘smart power’. “Job Cohen is not a soft touch at all,” Van Aartsen added. “Actually, he can be a very tough politician. He is often underestimated in this respect.”

Cohen’s biggest achievement came in 2004, after Theo van Gogh was killed. The city was left in uproar, but riots did not take place, partially because Cohen had persuaded Muslim civil organisations to restrain their base.

Former Labour chairman Felix Rottenberg warned that Cohen could also have a hidden weakness. Since he has served as Amsterdam’s mayor for so long, he might have become used to some of the political luxuries such a position entails, he said. In the Netherlands, mayors are appointed, not elected. “An appointed mayor is supposed to rise above the bickering political parties, more than a prime minister, for instance,” Rottenberg said. In Amsterdam, the question has been raised in the past whether Cohen’s leadership was hands-on enough at crucial moments. “A prime minister would not be able to dodge any responsibility,” Rottenberg added.

Also, the question remains whether Cohen, a legal scholar by training, would be able to lead the nation through the massive cutbacks to come. Cohen has said he would rely on others for financial expertise, which will also sound familiar to those who know him from Amsterdam. Cohen likes to listen, only making a decision after he has done so for a long time.

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