Mark Rutte fights for his political life amid government talks controversy

Netherlands’ caretaker PM faces no-confidence motion and accusations of lying

Dutch opposition parties presented a no-confidence motion in caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte on Thursday and accused him of lying in public about what he had privately discussed during talks to form a cabinet, presenting the biggest challenge to his leadership in a decade.

Mr Rutte was the clear winner of parliamentary elections on March 17th that were seen as a referendum on his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Losing a vote of confidence would scupper his ability to form a new government.

It was not clear whether centrist parties in Mr Rutte’s previous coalition, who are likely to participate in any new coalition, would continue to back him. A debate before the vote appeared likely to last into the early hours of Friday.

The crisis arose on Thursday after Mr Rutte acknowledged having privately discussed what job should go to a prominent member of parliament who had been critical of his previous cabinet. Mr Rutte had previously said he did not do so.

“The only thing I can do here is say . . . that I never lied,” Mr Rutte said in parliament on Thursday.

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

Sensitive document

Talks on forming a new government were abruptly put on hold on March 25th when one of the chief negotiators in the discussions unwittingly revealed a sensitive document to a news photographer as she rushed out of parliament after learning that she had tested positive for Covid-19.

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

Mr Rutte told reporters on March 25th he had not been the one to mention Mr Omtzigt’s position, but notes from talks given to parliament this week after the row erupted showed he had in fact mentioned Mr Omtzigt’s role.

In parliament on Thursday, Mr Rutte told sceptical politicians that he had forgotten mentioning a cabinet post for Mr Omtzigt in a private conversation. He said he had not hinted at a position “elsewhere” for Mr Omtzigt during the talks about the cabinet, which he said meant he had technically not said anything untrue.

‘Lied to the country’

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

Mr 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.

Mr 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 were wrongfully accused of childcare benefit fraud for years, often on the basis of ethnicity.

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

In his defence on Thursday Mr Rutte appealed to his track record.

“I led the country through an economic crisis, an immigration crisis, and through a very serious health crisis, a pandemic, and I am looking very much forward to working on the recovery of this country,” he said.– Reuters