Mark Rutte’s political future in doubt amid coalition row

Mark Rutte seemed like a shoo-in to return as prime minister after last month’s Dutch parliamentary election. 

Now, not so much.

The caretaker prime minister narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the early hours of Friday after a 15-hour parliamentary debate. Instead, all parties, bar his own People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), supported a separate motion of disapproval, saying Rutte had not told the truth about remarks made during coalition formation talks.

That’s a serious blow to his chances of forming his fourth government and possibly becoming the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Having survived the vote of no confidence, Rutte can now in theory continue to act as caretaker prime minister while the Cabinet negotiations continue. MPs also voted to appoint a single negotiator, who is both respected and at a distance from parliament, to restart that process.

“I will continue as prime minister, I will work terribly hard to regain trust,” Rutte told parliament shortly after the no-confidence vote. On Friday morning, he repeated to journalists that he was “very motivated” to continue in his position as caretaker prime minister.

But the question is whether other parties trust Rutte enough to form a coalition with him, which is crucial in a highly fragmented political landscape where only three parties won more than 10 percent of the votes.  

Sigrid Kaag of the liberal D66 party, which had looked likely to form a new coalition with Rutte after coming second in the election behind the VVD, told Rutte: “Our paths part here.”

“My trust in Rutte has been seriously dented today,” Kaag said during the debate. “The distance between him and me is wider. I regret that.”

Wopke Hoekstra, leader of the Christian Democrats, one of Rutte’s coalition partners in the outgoing government, described the situation as a “total mess.” Kaag and Hoekstra put forward the motion of censure.

Rutte’s longevity has often been attributed to his success in brushing off crises, including the child benefit scandal that prompted his government’s mass resignation in January, failed plans to scrap a corporate dividend tax, and civilian casualties of a Dutch bombing in Iraq.

This time the scandal “might seem small, but it’s also the sum of 10 years of various crises during which Rutte managed to distance himself from the scandal and remain untouched,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael. “This time he was really caught on camera falsely claiming — either consciously or unconsciously — that he had not made a suggestion to rein in a political opponent.”

Chaotic coalition process

After the center-right VVD finished first in last month’s parliamentary election, Rutte was in position to set about building a fresh coalition and stay in power.

But the government formation process was halted last week after one of the two officials tasked with sounding out the positions of the various parties, Home Affairs Minister Kajsa Ollongren, tested positive for the coronavirus.

As she left the parliamentary complex, photographers snapped pictures of a bundle of briefing notes she was carrying. One note suggested Rutte and Kaag were set to discuss the position of Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt, whose work exposing a child benefit scandal led to the fall of the previous government.

Rutte told the media at the time that he had not discussed a job for Omtzigt — but on Thursday he admitted that he had “remembered that wrong,” after newly published documents from the talks showed he had discussed making Omtzigt a minister.

Fueling the confusion, Rutte said that he had only remembered after receiving a phone call on Thursday morning — from a source he refused to identify.

“I addressed the press in good conscience. I misremembered it afterwards, and deeply regret that,” Rutte told parliament. 

It’s unclear where this leaves the coalition forming process. Some political analysts say Rutte’s position is so damaged that he will come under pressure from within the VVD to stand down. 

“I think Kaag and Hoekstra filed the motion of censure hopeful that Rutte will do the honorable thing and resign,” Clingendael’s Korteweg said, noting, however, that after 10 years of Rutte and an election campaign that was largely centered on how he had guided the Netherlands through the coronavirus pandemic, there “is no clear successor.”

Kaag said after the debate that it should “not be taken as read” that Rutte will take the lead in the continuation of the coalition formation process.

Forming a government without the VVD will require a coalition of at least seven parties or forming a minority government, both options highly unlikely.

Rutte said Friday that he wants to use the long Easter weekend to “let the dust settle” and “reflect” on the last few days.

“Forming a new government was already extremely complex before the debate. But all parties need to realize: there must be a good government. There are a lot of problems to solve, also after the corona crisis,” he added.

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