Mark Rutte faces no-confidence vote

Mark Rutte is fighting for his political career after being caught up in a scandal that could bring an abrupt end to his 11 years as prime minister of the Netherlands.

The veteran leader, whose right-leaning liberal Freedom party (VVD) comfortably won elections last month, faces a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Thursday, with opposition leaders and former coalition allies calling for his resignation. 

Rutte has been at the centre of a scandal over discussions regarding whether to appoint a prominent government critic as a minister in the new coalition government. 

Last week, Rutte denied ever raising the question of whether conservative MP Pieter Omtzigt should serve in the next cabinet with officials in charge of coalition negotiations. It later emerged that Rutte had made the suggestion after confidential coalition documents were made public.

In a parliamentary debate on Thursday, the embattled prime minister said he had “forgotten” the conversation had taken place. “I spoke to the press to the best of my knowledge and conscience. I remembered it wrongly and I deeply regret it,” said Rutte, who looked uncomfortable.

The episode has sparked sustained criticism of the 54-year-old who has ridden out numerous crises in his tenure, earning the nickname “Teflon Mark”

Sigrid Kaag, leader of the liberal D66 and a coalition partner in Rutte’s last government, said the prime minister’s claim of forgetfulness was “not good” enough and that the two parties should “part ways”.

“There has been a pattern of forgetfulness in recent years,” she said. 

Rutte’s VVD emerged as clear victors in elections dominated by Covid-19 in mid-March. But the process of forming a coalition has been chaotic. Kajsa Ollongren, one of the MPs appointed as a “scout” to lead coalition talks, tested positive for Covid-19 last month, leading to criticism about the talks being held in person, with attendees not wearing masks. 

The scandal over Omtzigt began when a photographer captured Ollongren holding a negotiating document that mentioned the conservative MP’s name as a point for discussion in coalition talks. 

Omtzigt, a member of the centre-right Christian Democrats, was a thorn in the side of the previous Rutte-led government. He was instrumental in exposing a tax scandal in which government officials falsely accused thousands of parents of defrauding the state, an affair over which the cabinet was forced to resign in January. 

That episode did not however result in Rutte relinquishing his job — he stayed on as caretaker prime minister. The tax scandal also failed to dent his popularity in March’s election, in which the VVD gained three seats and retained its position as the largest party in the lower house of parliament. 

But the prime minister now faces his toughest test yet. The vote of no confidence can be passed by a simple majority of MPs, and almost all of the opposition parties are lined up against him.

Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, accused Rutte of being a “born liar” in the parliamentary debate. Greens leader Jesse Klaver said he blamed the prime minister for covering up the episode.

Follow Mehreen Khan on Twitter: @mehreenkhn

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