The resignation of two cabinet heavyweights and likely defeats for his government in next week’s Senate elections make Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s position seem precarious.
The liberal party leader, who has been in power since 2010, was attacked by opposition parties from the left and the right on Tuesday night, following the resignation of the justice minister and his deputy a day earlier.
Both ministers stepped down on Monday after it emerged they had misinformed parliament about a decade-old drug deal.
Rutte refused to answer lawmakers’ questions about the deal on Tuesday, insisting that the only mistake his ministers had made was inadvertently misleading parliament.
Other party leaders accused Rutte of playing down the affair. The Christian Democrats said he was awfully “breezy” about the matter. “This case requires more than your loose style of management by speech,” said the Greens. Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer called on Rutte to be less “nonchalant.”
Elsevier, a conservative weekly, said Rutte appeared far less adroit than usual.
Normally, the Teflon prime minister is able to pit the left- and right-wing opposition parties against each other but this time they conspired against him.
Even if the liberal had wanted to hit back, he needed to keep in mind there are elections next week. The ruling parties are expected to lose their majority in the Senate and can ill afford to alienate parties whose support they might soon need to enact legislation.
Rutte was forced into a coalition with the left-wing Labor Party in 2012 when the two parties got over 50 percent support together in parliamentary elections. They do not command a majority in the Senate, however, where they formed an informal alliance with the centrist liberal Democrats and two small Christian parties.
If the five parties fail to renew their majority, Rutte may have to reach out to the Christian Democrats for support.
The left-right coalition has been strenuous. Early into his second term, Rutte was forced to roll back planned health insurance and immigration reforms, facing revolts in both ruling parties. Labor later threatened to hold up a housing bill and last month called for deeper cuts in natural gas production than the government had proposed.
Polls show the ruling parties losing thirteen out of thirty Senate seats while the liberal Democrats and the far-left Socialists would gain seven and four, respectively. 38 seats are needed for a majority.
Despite Monday’s resignations and the coalition’s low approval ratings, Elsevier argued that Rutte was still the pivotal player in The Hague. Roemer and nationalist Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders “disqualified” themselves with their “derision and grotesque rhetoric,” according to the magazine, while neither the Christian Democrats’ Sybrand van Haersma Buma nor liberal Democrat leader Alexander Pechtold could have handled the resignation of two cabinet ministers any better.
An op-ed in the leftist de Volkskrant — a newspaper that sympathizes with the Labor Party — is less sure. It recognizes that the liberal prime minister is a “master” at the art of compromise in day-to-day politics but said his confrontational tone in the election debates could make him seem less of a statesman.
Last week, Rutte said during a televised debate that he would rather Dutch jihadists who traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight for the self-declared Islamic State there died in battle than returned to the Netherlands. A poll showed 77 percent of voters agreeing with him yet other party leaders, except Wilders, took exception to Rutte’s words. Pechtold, whose centrist party is the second largest in the polls, said Rutte’s statement was “unworthy of a premier.”
The point of such tough talk, according to de Volkskrant, is to give Rutte’s liberal party a clear and recognizable profile. “And that is the point of election debates.”
But there are risks as well. Rutte’s partisan strategy make him seem less of a prime minister than just another party leader. Although the majority of voters disagreed with Pechtold’s nuanced argument that terrorists should be tried like regular criminals, they still said he won the debate.
Pechtold’s party, ideologically in the middle between Labor and the liberals, has also been the key dealmaker in the informal five-party coalition. Polls show voters prefer him or Lodewijk Asscher, Labor’s interior minister, to Rutte — if only by a small margin.