Can Gwendolyn Rutten lift Flemish liberals out of the doldrums?

37-year-old Gwendolyn Rutten was chosen as the new leader of the Flemish liberal party Open VLD on Saturday. She defeated her challenger, Egbert Lachaert, with almost 60 percent of the votes. Ms Rutten now faces the tough challenge of steering the Open VLD back to success in the important 2014 elections.

Open VLD was looking for a new leader after Alexander De Croo, who previously headed the party, had become the Pensions Minister in the federal government. There were only two candidates to become the new chairman: Gwendolyn Rutten and Egbert Lachaert (small photo). While Rutten had the support of senior party members, Lachaert joined the race rather unexpectedly, presenting himself as the outsider.

Rutten collected 12,101 votes among Open VLD members, compared to 8,264 votes for Lachaert. Rutten is a federal MP and hails from Aarschot (Flemish Brabant). In an emotional address, she called on all party members to think differently and take a different approach to the political landscape. "We are proud Flemings and proud liberals, the best is yet to come." She also wants to build bridges: "I want to be a binding factor and become the party leader of all the liberals."

Open VLD has been in the doldrums for a couple of years now. Opinion polls only give the party some 10 percent of the votes, only half of what it used to be. It is thought that Open VLD is losing right-wing voters to the Flemish nationalists of N-VA.

Rutten is looking for new ideas to give Open VLD a new swing. There is not too much time left. In the spring of 2014, federal elections are taking place in Belgium together with regional and European elections.