The Netherlands used to be at the forefront of progressive politics and we are losing that. I hope that we can be more inclusive because there are people like me, who are children of immigrants, who want a seat at the table.
Mikal Tseggai, The Netherlands
Few can say they are pursuing their master's degree while running for a national election — unless they are Mikal Tseggai. At the age of 28, Mikal has focused her sights on earning a seat in the Dutch Parliament with the Green Left-Dutch Labour Party coalition. She is awaiting the 22nd of November when Dutch citizens will race to the polls to cast their vote in the general election. In the run-up to election day, we sat down with Mikal for our ISS Changemakers series to discuss her key stances and experiences as a young politician.
Finding her spark
Mikal's upbringing inspired her journey towards a political career. Her family is from Eritrea, a northeastern African country that gained independence in 1993 after years of violent turmoil with Ethiopia. Her parents fled to the Netherlands in 1989, and a few years later, Mikal was born in Haarlem.
Her formative years unfolded against the backdrop of significant events, including the rise of Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. Mikal vividly recalls the growing polarization in the Netherlands during this time, marked by increasing populism and resentment towards a growing multicultural society. 'Populism became very prominent in the Netherlands when I was around six or seven,' she reflects. 'There was a lot of anger towards migration, and I was very conscious of what was happening around me.'
In the face of this societal turbulence, Mikal drew strength from a moral truth instilled by generations before her: the importance of standing up for one's ideals and speaking out. 'My parents and family members were quite political, so I was always raised in an environment where you stand up for what you believe in, whether it's about the world, your country or your city.' This spark, rooted in her heritage and the experiences of her youth, ultimately propelled Mikal's deepening interest in politics.
From the books to the ballets
Mikal moved to The Hague to complete her bachelor's in public administration and became locally involved as a member of the Dutch Labour Party's youth wing in 2016. She was keen on eventually running for city council, and the encouragement of a party member made Mikal see new possibilities. 'I met Jeltje van Nieuwenhoven, who was the first woman to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. She became my political mentor,' she recalls. Van Nieuwenhoven shared her story and encouraged Mikal to face the world confidently despite coming from an underrepresented background. 'I was just a bachelor's student, but by law, I could run for office at 22 years old.' Mikal took the leap, and in 2018, she became a city council member.
For two years, Mikal was engaged in political work when a coincidental meeting with ISS professor Kees Biekaart led her to apply to the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 'I didn't know Kees, but he invited me to drink a cup of coffee to talk about a PhD student interviewing politicians of African descent in Europe,' she recalls. However, 'he recommended that I study at ISS and gave me a book about Development Studies.' She found that her interest in the programme aligned with her outlook. 'I was tired of Eurocentric academic training, and I wanted to make an international shift.' She applied to the programme and, to her happiness, was admitted under the Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives (SJP) Major.
'I was always raised in an environment where you stand up for what you believe in, whether it's about the world, your country or your city.'
Prepping for a crucial election
Completing her master's while being a city council member and running for national election has been far from easy. 'It's very intense,' she laughs. This Dutch election season is particularly crucial. In July, the current cabinet collapsed due to disagreements on migration policies. Several political leaders, including the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have stepped down for reelection. Parties, including the Dutch Labour Party, have mobilized to form coalitions for better political representation in parliament. Finding a balance does come at a cost, but Mikal keeps her focus sharp on tackling her goals. 'I told everyone in the party and the campaigning organization that — I know it's weird — but my priority was my master's thesis, and whatever time I had left, I could use for campaigning.'
Mikal stands to address critical issues related to inequality, like affordable housing and combatting racism and discrimination in the Netherlands. As a child, Mikal was always encouraged to work hard to achieve your goals, but she notices that far too often, multiple factors influence people's life chances. 'Despite what conceptions my ISS peers have, there is a lot of inequality in the Netherlands,' she insists. 'Being poor or rich, or having parents who are highly-educated or lower educated makes a lot of difference in where kids end up.'
Tackling inequality has consistently topped Mikal's agenda, and her achievements as a city council member underscore her commitment. She took the lead in crafting a manifesto—a powerful symbol of unity among both left and right-wing parties against racism and discrimination. Mikal actively engaged in initiatives addressing The Hague's historical ties to slavery and its colonial past. Today, plaques dot various city locations, offering transparent information about buildings directly funded by slavery. A forthcoming slavery monument further emphasizes the city's dedication to acknowledging and rectifying historical injustices. Reflecting on these accomplishments, Mikal takes pride in the outcomes and the City Council's ability to unite and drive change on the highly polarizing issue of racism in the Netherlands.
Mikal has faced her fair share of trials, sometimes being on the receiving end of online abuse. However, she continues her work on matters close to her heart. Instead, she stays focused on the support from the community and her party members. 'It's very easy to type something behind your computer, but it's difficult to change something. I'm more focused on pushing for change and positive reactions and outcomes.'
The final push
As election day approaches, Mikal has wrapped up her master's thesis and is all-in with political campaigning. 'Sometimes [my friends] ask me why I don't just take a normal nine-to-five job and stop having meetings until one in the morning,' she laughs. Mikal gains the necessary energy in her hope that a better future for everyone in the Netherlands lies ahead. 'The Netherlands used to be at the forefront of progressive politics. I feel like we are losing that. I hope that we can be more inclusive because there are people like me, who are children of immigrants, who are asking for a seat at the table.' Regardless of the outcome on the 22nd of November, win or lose, Mikal is a force. 'As long as I can play a part in creating a more just and equal world, that would bring me happiness.'
Are you interested in ISS after reading Mikal's story? Learn more about our MA in Development Studies programme.