Dutch PM’s future hangs in balance despite surviving no-confidence vote

Mark Rutte is under pressure to resign as Dutch prime minister despite surviving a vote of no confidence that threatens to end his 11-year tenure.

Rutte narrowly escaped defeat in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the early hours of Friday, which was triggered by allegations that he lied about holding discussions over appointing a prominent government critic as a minister in a new coalition. 

A defiant Rutte on Friday insisted he would not step down from his role after his party won elections last month. “I got 1.9m voters, so it’s crazy to step aside two weeks after the election,” the caretaker leader told journalists. “Let’s try to get that formation process going again. I hope the VVD [Rutte’s party] can participate in this.”

Rutte faced a barrage of criticism from opposition politicians and former allies in the marathon parliamentary debate that began on Thursday.

Lilianne Ploumen, leader of the centre-left Labour party, accused Rutte of behaving like a “sun king” after he claimed to have no memory of a conversation about conservative MP Pieter Omtzigt joining the next government. Official coalition negotiation documents were later published showing he had suggested Omtzigt as a possible minister.

Despite surviving the vote of no confidence — which was backed by the country’s main opposition parties — Rutte still faces a motion of censure proposed by the liberal democrat D66 party and the Christian Democrats, his former coalition allies. 

Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow at Chatham House, said Rutte faced a “mammoth task” to restore confidence with the parties he needs to form a new government.

“It seems highly unlikely that D66 and the Christian Democrats would sign up to another coalition under Rutte after this,” said Bergsen. “While Rutte will use his charm and attempt to mend relationships in the upcoming exploratory talks, even he is unlikely to be able to fix this. It seems like only a matter of time until he is forced to admit defeat.”

Should parties refuse to negotiate with the prime minister, it would mark an abrupt end to his tenure at the helm of Dutch politics. Rutte has led three coalition governments since 2010 and was on course to become the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister after securing a new four-year term in March. 

Omtzigt, a Christian Democrat MP, was instrumental in exposing the scandal where tax officials falsely accused thousands of families, largely of immigrant background, of defrauding the state. The episode led to the resignation of the last Rutte cabinet in January.

While that was not enough to derail Rutte, the more obscure debate about Omtzigt has led to broader criticism about a recurring pattern of plausible deniability from the prime minister.

Catherine De Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi university, said all parties except Rutte’s own were likely to approve the motion of censure, heaping further pressure on the prime minister.

She said the health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic would help Rutte, and could let “cooler heads prevail”, but the odds of him leading a new government “are much smaller now”.

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