PM Rutte survives debate on formation leak with image severely damaged

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VVD leader and departing Prime Minister Mark Rutte just barely survived a parliamentary debate on leaked notes from the cabinet formation process. He left the Tweede Kamer during the early hours of Good Friday morning with political trust in him severely damaged, but still in his position as Prime Minister. For the first time, whether Rutte can form a fourth cabinet really seems uncertain, NU.nl reports.

The parliamentary debate revolved around the cabinet formation, which was suddenly halted last Wednesday when pathfinder Kasja Ollongren, tasked with mapping out possibilities to form a coalition government, found out she had tested positive for coronavirus. As she rushed out carrying her notes under her arm,  journalists took photos which later revealed one of the notes stating ‘position Omtzigt, function elsewhere’. This referred to the CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt who played a key role in exposing the tax fraud which brought down Rutte’s last cabinet.

Rutte on camera denied that he discussed Omtzigt in his talks with the pathfinders Ollongren and Annemarie Jorritsma, who stepped down as pathfinders after the leak. But when the notes on the party leaders’ discussions with the pathfinders were released, it turned out that Rutte indeed mentioned the CDA parliamentarian. “You have to do something with Omtzigt: make him a minister,” the report on the discussion with Rutte quoted him. 

The Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, was furious, especially because Rutte insisted that he had not talked about Omtzigt. In the debate, Rutte said that he had not intentionally lied, only “remembered that incorrectly afterwards”. But this was not enough of an excuse for the newly sworn in MPs.

“How does this Prime Minister think he can continue to be credible? SP leader Lilian Marijnissen said. PvdA leader Lilianne Ploumen: “This incident smacks of abuse of power.” PVV leader Geert Wilders called Rutte a “born liar” and filed a motion of no confidence against him. 

The motion of no confidence, which would have resulted in Rutte having to step down as Prime Minister, just failed to get majority support, getting 72 out of 150 votes. This means that Rutte can stay on as Prime Minister for the time being, but whether he’ll be able to lead the next formation is now uncertain. Only his current coalition partners D66, CDA and ChristenUnie did not support the motion of no confidence. But they seem reluctant to work with Rutte again.

“I disapprove of Rutte speaking about Omtzigt. I have my doubts about the denial and about the defense today,” D66 leader Sigrid Kaag said. Her confidence in Rutte has “taken a serious dent”, she said. “The distance between him and me has gotten bigger.”

“What an embarrassment, from A to Z,” CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra said. “This is an extremely unsatisfying debate.” Hoekstra said the CDA is not enthusiastic about remaining in the coalition and was seriously considering regrouping as an opposition party. Notes by pathfinder Jorritsma also stated that a place in the opposition is “the most realistic” for the CDA.

ChristenUnie leader Gert-Jan Segers said that the only reason his party did not support the vote of no confidence, is that the Netherlands is in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. “That is more important,” he said. 

Kaag and Hoekstra submitted a motion of censure against Rutte. This motion is almost as serious as the motion of no confidence, but does not mean immediate resignation. The motion was supported by all parties except for Rutte’s own VVD.

There was also anger about Rutte finding out at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday that the pathfinders’ notes showed that he had mentioned Omtzigt. The other party leaders had to wait until 9:00 a.m. to see the notes on their talks with the pathfinders. The cabinet formation process is accommodated by officials from the Ministry of General Affairs – Rutte’s Ministry. 

“How can we have confidence in the formation process if Rutte receives information via via?” DENK leader Farid Azarkan wanted to know. CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra: “This casts a shadow on the formation process.” 

The VVD leader refused to give up his source. “That is confidential,” he said. The Kamer tried in vain in hours to get the information out of Rutte, even summoning the new formation pathfinders Wouter Koolmees (D66) and Tamara van Ark (VVD), but it was to no avail.

The debate ended at around 3:00 a.m., with Rutte apologizing to the Kamer. “In particular to Pieter Omtzigt,” he said. After the debate, he said that he would do his “stinking best” and “work terribly hard” to earn back the confidence of the Kamer and society.



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