Dutch PM Rutte fights for political life after blunder

Bart H. Meijer and Anthony Deutsch
·3-min read

By Bart H. Meijer and Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -A debate that could seal the political fate of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was set to go on well past midnight on Friday, after politicians from all sides of parliament accused him of lying over remarks made during talks to form a Cabinet.

Rutte faced the biggest challenge to his leadership in a decade as the opposition presented a no-confidence motion, with a vote to directly follow the debate.

Rutte was the clear winner of last month's parliamentary elections, seen as a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Losing a vote of confidence would force him to tender his resignation to King Willem-Alexander.

It would also throw negotiations on forming a new coalition into disarray and seriously hurt Rutte's chances of forming his fourth consecutive government and becoming the Netherlands' longest serving Prime Minister.

More than 10 hours after the debate started, it remained unclear whether Rutte would get needed support from centrist parties in his previous coalition.

The crisis arose on Thursday after documents showed that in government formation talks Rutte had discussed a possible new job for a prominent member of parliament who had been critical of his previous Cabinet. Rutte had previously said he did not do so.

"The only thing I can do here is say from the bottom of my heart, my toes, say what happened, what went well, what went wrong, that I never lied," Rutte said in parliament.

Rutte, 54, a conservative who has been in office for more than 10 years, pointed to his record and said he hoped to continue leading the country.

On March 25, talks on forming a new government were abruptly put on hold when one negotiator, rushing out of parliament after learning she had tested positive for the coronavirus, unwittingly revealed a sensitive document to a news photographer.

The document showed negotiators were discussing a position "elsewhere" for popular MP Pieter Omtzigt, a prominent critic of Rutte's previous Cabinet, though Omtzigt's Christian Democrats were part of the ruling coalition. The cryptic remark has been interpreted as implying outside parliament or outside the Netherlands.

Rutte told reporters on March 25 he had not been the one to mention Omtzigt's position.

'LIED TO THE WHOLE COUNTRY'

In Parliament on Thursday, Rutte told sceptical lawmakers that he knew he had mentioned a possible Cabinet post for Omtzigt in a private conversation, but had forgotten that he had also talked about it during formal talks about the Cabinet.

This, he said, meant he had technically not said anything untrue.

Opposition lawmaker Geert Wilders, who filed the no-confidence motion, said Rutte had "lied to the whole country". "Seek a job elsewhere yourself," Wilders said. "We cannot go further with this PM."

Omtzigt, who was sworn in as a member of parliament on Wednesday, said the implication he should be removed was "an affront to the Dutch voter".

He demanded full transparency about how his name had come to be on the document.

Rutte's conservative VVD party convincingly won last month's national elections, even though his government resigned in January over a scandal in which thousands of families where wrongfully accused of child care benefit fraud for years, often on the basis of ethnicity.

Omtzigt had persistently asked questions about the matter until it became fully public.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Bart Meijer and Toby SterlingEditing by Alexandra Hudson, Frances Kerry, Grant McCool and David Gregorio)