Rutte for Fourth Term? Splintered Dutch Political Landscape

Rutte for Fourth Term?  Splintered Dutch Political Landscape

Approaching 7 months since the last Dutch general election, new cabinet formations have been marred by internal struggles, ministerial scandals, and political betrayals hampering party leaders from partaking in constructive discussions. The current and now demissionary Rutte III cabinet holds the record for the longest cabinet formation in Dutch history: a whopping 225 days, a situation politicians hoped they would never encounter again. However, Rutte’s aspirations to become the Netherlands’ longest-serving Prime Minister, in combination with the country’s fragmented political landscape, means Dutch citizens must brace themselves for a long formation if not new elections. Recent breakthroughs to restart the current coalition have signaled a possible end to formations, but if it falls through, new elections are inevitable.

On 17 March 2021, incumbent Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte won the general elections for the fourth time in a row with his conservative-liberal VVD party. Winning 34 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, the VVD has come out as the clear winner with the second largest party, the liberal D66 party, trailing behind with 24 seats (a record-high for D66). These elections are characterised by records being broken: the ‘classic’ left-wing parties secured a historic low combined share of seats (26), a record number of new parties entered the House of Representatives (3), and a record number of political groups are now represented in parliament (19). One record that remains hard to break and still far away is the length to form a new cabinet: 225 days, a record held by Rutte himself.

Indestructible Mark Rutte?

With more than 10 years of Rutte at the helm of Dutch government, he is very close to breaking Ruud Lubbers record of 11 years and 291 days to become the longest-serving PM of the Netherlands; a record that is bound to be broken if Rutte IV materialises. By presenting himself as the country’s national crisis manager, Rutte has held onto his popularity by pragmatically steering the Netherlands through the pandemic, thus strengthening his mandate to form a fourth cabinet under his leadership. However, soon after ‘scouts’ started their exploratory post-election research into cabinet formations, what appeared to become an easy path to Rutte IV took an unexpected turn. Research notes were accidentally leaked revealing Rutte’s now infamous statement: “positie Omtzigt, functie elders” (Omtzigt’s position, function elsewhere), a statement interpreted as exploring means to silence critical members of parliament. The PM’s initial denial of mentioning Omtzigt as part of the talks, followed by his claims of forgetting it, triggered an eruption of political and public outrage, threatening the future of a fourth Rutte cabinet.

Facing strong backlash from both the opposition parties, as well as from his current coalition partners, Rutte faced tough questioning in parliament, losing a ‘motion of censure’, and barely surviving a no-confidence vote. Being accused of lying and forgetfulness to survive scandals throughout his tenure, multiple parties such as the SP and PVV have ruled out working with Rutte’s VVD as long as he fronts the party. Rutte refused to stand down as PM and as leader of the VVD, relying on the strong backing from his party as well as the nearly 2 million votes he garnered during the election. Formation talks have frequently faced significant setbacks as the larger political parties and realistic coalition partners such as the Dutch labour party (PvdA), the greens (GroenLinks), and the Christian Union have inconsistently ruled out partaking in a fourth Rutte cabinet, but then returned to the negotiation table. Meanwhile, smaller parties are pleading for new elections.

Throughout his nearly 11 year tenure as PM, Mark Rutte’s ability to survive scandals has humorously earned him the nickname of ‘Teflon Mark’, as coined by the international media. However, domestically, it appears that the most recent childcare benefits scandal and controversy surrounding the formation talks are a bridge too far for parliament. Rutte’s colleagues and coalition partners have started second-guessing his motives, and questioning his authenticity, adding pressure to whether a fourth Rutte-led cabinet is realistic. On the other hand, political parties are well aware that a demissionary cabinet cannot set new policies, leaving the Netherlands in a visionless limbo as it awaits a new government. The crucial post-Covid recovery phase requires decisive domestic and international policy-making, but with nearly 7 months of no progress, the Dutch people will suffer the most from this policy vacuum.

What is to come?

With the established parties hesitant to call for new elections, Dutch formation talks are in it for the long-haul. As current coalition partners Sigrid Kaag, leader of D66, and Wopke Hoekstra, leader of the CDA, expressed their strong disapproval towards Rutte’s actions, the respective second and fourth largest parties know full well that a coalition without Rutte’s VVD would be an arduous task, particularly considering the country’s ever so splintered political landscape. Forming a left-leaning coalition would require more than six parties, while forming a right-leaning coalition would be impossible as the majority of parties have ruled out a government with the far-right FvD and PVV. The most feasible possibilities lie in the inclusion of Rutte’s VVD, even if this means backtracking on previously expressed anger towards Rutte.

The formation of a new coalition depends on the hypocrisy of D66 and CDA, with the latter facing an internal power struggle and polarised membership as a result of the attempted silencing of MP Pieter Omtzigt, who has since left the CDA. With prominent members and the youth factions of D66 and CDA ruling out their support to govern with Rutte, Kaag and Hoekstra realise that the past must be put aside to avoid new elections, if not to act in the best interest of the country. Opposition parties are well aware of the likely hypocritical moves Kaag and Hoekstra will make, which in turn will complicate the last struggle if the VVD, CDA and D66 come to an agreement: which fourth party will provide Rutte IV with a parliamentary majority? As the majority of smaller parties have ruled out governing with Rutte, parties may have to fall into the same hypocritical trap of D66 and CDA, and renege on previously made statements. The PvdA and GroenLinks are increasingly mulling over the idea of partaking in a Rutte-led cabinet on the condition that they stick together. Forming a minority government is also on the tables, but previous Dutch minority coalitions have been short-lived, inevitably leading to new elections. 

Rutte, driven by his personal aspirations, sits on the sideline watching the hesitations and arguments amongst and within his rivals’ parties after putting the ball in their park. Aware that a coalition without the VVD is near to impossible, it is a matter of time until parties succumb to the pressures of the general public, party members, and politicians’ personal ambitions. However, Rutte is feeling the pressure too as his demissionairy cabinet is slowly starting to disintegrate, with recent ministerial resignations and a lack of replacements showing the growing tensions within a policy-less government. The question on everyone’s mind is whether this formation will take longer than 225 days, or whether new elections are to be called. With the recent re-joining of the Christian Union to negotiations, a restart of the current cabinet is the most realistic outcome to date as informers have examined the feasibility of this option. If it works, a new government vision can be set, if not, parties will have to go back to the drawing board. 


The likely outcome is that a coalition will form, at least to ride out the final shockwaves of the global Covid pandemic. However, chances are the status quo will continue for the foreseeable future as The Hague continues to be in disarray, with a high chance of the shameful formation record of 225 days being broken. Whatever government is to form, citizens and businesses are preparing themselves for a short-term cabinet lasting for no longer than a year, particularly since Rutte’s leadership style appears to remain unchanged, as well as Kaag’s ambition to become the country’s first female PM. This in turn means that policy-making will fall back into its current state of limbo in which no clear vision is set to kickstart the economy and guide the country to a consolidated post-Covid recovery, once again leaving the Dutch in a disillusioned state in an already fragile political landscape. While there are signs that the current cabinet can be restarted with the promise of a new vision and open coalition agreement which could enable longevity, critics are adamant elections are on the horizon, with or without a new government.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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