What does it take to dislodge Mark Rutte from high office?

Hague Letter: Having led four coalition governments, the caretaker prime minister was censured for ‘damaging public trust in government’

Dutch caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte: It’s fair to say that his  coalition has had a patchy pandemic. Photograph:  Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

Dutch caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte: It’s fair to say that his coalition has had a patchy pandemic. Photograph: Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

 

There is, believe it or not, a thing in political science called “Dutchification”, the idea that when an electorate becomes too fragmented political change becomes virtually impossible. Dutch policy wonks tend to think it can’t really happen. But perhaps they’re just a little behind the curve.

The thing about Dutchification is that it’s based on the premise that more and more political fragmentation indicates greater and greater electoral volatility, and that this must surely indicate some form of crisis for democracy – even where none is readily apparent.

Another way of looking at it, of course, may be that more and more fragmentation, in the sense of increasing numbers of new small parties, may indicate not a crisis for democracy but a victory. Activists are more engaged. So the reason crisis-watchers see no crisis is because there is none.

That’s not to say, however, that fragmentation cannot lead to political paralysis – or at least to the type of inertia that was strikingly illustrated in a poll of polls the other day, roughly six months since the four-party coalition led by Mark Rutte collapsed in January and 100 days since the March election.

To understand the bizarre nature of that inertia it’s instructive to fast-forward through the Netherlands’ political highlights since February 27th, 2020, the day its first Covid-19 case was confirmed.

It’s fair to say that since that date the Rutte coalition has had a patchy pandemic.

What confidence there was in its stewardship was vested, polling showed repeatedly, in Rutte personally. Even so, there were missteps – delays in acknowledging the scale of the problem in nursing homes, delays in making masks compulsory, and delays in starting vaccinations. Along the way too there were days and nights of rioting in protest at an overnight curfew.

Long-term row

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, the government collapsed, not as a result of coronavirus but as a result of a festering long-term row over the hard line taken by the justice department in a scandal over child benefit payments – the explosive nature of which had been well flagged.

In Covid-free circumstances one would have expected this to be just the sort of controversy Rutte would have taken great care to defuse before it exploded in his face. Too late. The government was forced to resign and an election was called for March.

Houdini-like, the good news for Rutte was that his Liberal Party – the VVD – was returned yet again at the head of the polls, gaining an additional seat, and looking set for a trouble-free new coalition with centrist D66, the big “moral victors” of the election, which claimed a surprise second place.

Then came the most uncharacteristic Rutte misstep of all.

Climbing into a taxi, one of the talks’ facilitators had her notes photographed from a distance. Clearly visible were the words “Omtzigt” and “another function” – a reference to rebel Christian Democrat MP Peter Omtzigt, the man who had dragged the child benefits row into the open, and the suggestion, apparently, that someone wanted him anywhere but in the new cabinet.

At first Rutte vehemently denied that someone was him. A few days later he admitted it was. He’d forgotten, he said. Others believe he lied. Having led four successive coalition governments, he was now censured by parliament for, of all things, “damaging public trust in government”.

So, fast forward again to last week’s poll of polls and what did it show?

It showed that despite everything if an election were held tomorrow Rutte, caretaker prime minister, would add between one and six seats to his current 34. D66 would remain static on 24 or 25, and the Christian Democrats would drop from 15 to between 7 and 13.

Four parties

Rutte has been asked several times what combination of parties he would favour this time and his answer is always the same: the same four parties – Liberals, Christian Democrats, D66 and Christian Union – that remain part of the caretaker government.

By that he means the same four parties forced to resign last January after a scandal that “ruined lives”, and for whose failings he was then forced to apologise for , before being censured for damaging public trust. He doesn’t put it quite like that, of course.

Now that they can meet again, there are three questions Dutch voters are asking daily.

What does it take to dislodge Mark Rutte from high office? Given his poll ratings, why on earth would we want to dislodge him anyway? And, what exactly was the point of that last election?

Now that’s what I call inertia.

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