Two weeks after parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, attempts to form a coalition government have broken down amid incriminations that could put Mark Rutte’s prime ministership at risk.
Rutte won the election, but a botched start to the negotiations to form his fourth government has thrown doubt on his political survival.
The liberal has been in power since 2010.
Two “scouts” who were appointed by parliament to map out potential coalitions resigned after a week when one, Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren of the social-liberal D66, was photographed with confidential notes for her conversations with party leaders.
Most controversially, the notes suggested finding a “position elsewhere” for Pieter Omtzigt, the number-two lawmaker in the Christian Democratic party, which will almost certainly be needed for a majority.
Rutte compounded the scandal on Thursday, when he confirmed he had discussed Omtzigt’s position with the scouts despite earlier telling reporters he hadn’t. Rutte told an incredulous parliament he had misremembered the conversation.
Geert Wilders of the opposition Freedom Party called on Rutte to step down.
(Disclosure: I’m a member of Rutte’s political party.)
Ollongren and Annemarie Jorritsma, the leader of Rutte’s liberal VVD in the upper chamber, have been replaced as scouts by Social Affairs Minister Wouter Koolmees (D66) and Medical Care Minister Tamara van Ark (VVD).
D66 and VVD won the election and are still expected to form the heart of the next government.
But D66 leader Sigrid Kaag, the outgoing international trade minister, and Christian Democratic leader Wopke Hoekstra, the outgoing finance minister, both argued for appointing a fifth scout on Thursday, ideally one further removed from day-to-day politics.
Neither defended Rutte.
Omtzigt was one of the two lawmakers who brought the so-called child benefits scandal to light that caused Rutte’s last government to resign in January. Between 2013 and 2019, some 26,000 parents were wrongly accused of fraud. Many were financially ruined by demands to pay back tens of thousands of euros in child support. Omtzigt blamed Rutte for stonewalling his repeated inquiries in parliament.
Rutte disputed on Thursday that he had tried to get rid of Omtzigt, insisting the “position elsewhere” he imagined for the Christian Democrat was that of cabinet minister.
Hoekstra confirmed he and Rutte had held a similar conversation about Omtzigt’s position but maintained Rutte had been wrong to bring it up with the scouts, whose mandate was more limited.
Other party leaders disbelieved Rutte’s explanation.