Mark Rutte has survived a no-confidence vote after being caught up in a scandal that threatened to bring an abrupt end to his 11 years as prime minister of the Netherlands.
The veteran leader, whose right-leaning liberal Freedom party (VVD) comfortably won elections last month, narrowly withstood a challenge from opposition leaders and former coalition allies, who had called his resignation ahead of the no-confidence vote.
Rutte has been at the centre of a scandal over a possible proposal to appoint a prominent government critic as a minister in the new coalition government.
Last week, Rutte denied ever raising the question with officials in charge of coalition negotiations of whether conservative MP Pieter Omtzigt should serve in the next cabinet. It later emerged that Rutte had made the suggestion after confidential coalition documents were made public.
In a parliamentary debate on Thursday, the prime minister said he had “forgotten” the conversation had taken place. “I spoke to the press to the best of my knowledge and conscience. I remembered it wrongly and I deeply regret it,” said Rutte.
The episode sparked sustained criticism of the 54-year-old premier, who has ridden out numerous crises, earning the nickname “Teflon Mark”.
Sigrid Kaag, leader of the liberal D66 and a coalition partner in Rutte’s last government, said the prime minister’s claim of forgetfulness was “not good” enough and that the two parties should “part ways”.
“There has been a pattern of forgetfulness in recent years,” she said.
Rutte’s VVD emerged as clear victors in elections dominated by Covid-19 in mid-March. But the process of forming a coalition has been chaotic. Kajsa Ollongren, one of the MPs appointed as a “scout” to lead coalition talks, tested positive for Covid-19, leading to criticism about the negotiations being held in person and with attendees not wearing masks.
The controversy over Omtzigt began when a photographer captured Ollongren holding a negotiating document that mentioned the conservative MP’s name as a point for discussion in coalition talks.
Omtzigt, a member of the centre-right Christian Democrats, was a thorn in the side of the previous Rutte-led government. He was instrumental in exposing a tax scandal in which government officials falsely accused thousands of parents of defrauding the state, an affair over which the cabinet was forced to resign in January.
That episode did not, however, result in Rutte relinquishing his job, and he stayed on as caretaker prime minister.
The tax scandal also failed to dent his popularity among voters in the March election, with the VVD gaining three seats and retaining its position as the largest party in the lower house of parliament.
The vote of no confidence had presented Rutte with his toughest test, as almost all of the opposition parties had lined up against him.
Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, accused Rutte of being a “born liar” in the parliamentary debate. Greens leader Jesse Klaver said he blamed the prime minister for covering up the episode.
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