Lawmakers censure Dutch PM Rutte over coalition talks

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Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte listens to the debate in parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, April 1, 2021. Rutte was fighting for his political life Thursday in a bitter parliamentary debate about the country's derailed process of forming a new ruling coalition following elections last month. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE – Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s political future was in doubt Friday after lawmakers passed a motion of censure against him that was filed by two parties in his own outgoing coalition.

The politically damaging move came at the end of a marathon parliamentary debate about the stalled process to form a new government following elections last month. Opposition lawmakers accused Rutte of lying and undermining public trust in politicians. He narrowly survived a motion of no-confidence.

It was a stunning fall from grace just over two weeks after his conservative party won the most seats in parliament in the election, putting him in line to form his fourth governing coalition and possibly become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Rutte pledged to work to restore trust.

“I have gotten the message and taken it to heart,” he said.

The political crisis swirling around Rutte, who has been in power for more than a decade at the head of three coalitions, comes against a backdrop of rising numbers of coronavirus infections despite a lockdown that has lasted months.

But he will find it even harder to form a ruling coalition future after lawmakers accused him of trying to sideline a popular campaigning lawmaker during coalition talks and of undermining trust in politicians.

“My trust in Mr. Rutte has been seriously dented today,” Sigrid Kaag, leader of the centrist D66 party told Parliament in the early hours of the morning. “The distance between him and me is wider. I regret that.”

D66 finished second in the elections and is a current member of Rutte's coalition.

The crisis began last week when preliminary negotiations to form a new coalition halted after one of the two officials leading the talks tested positive for the coronavirus and was photographed carrying notes laying out details of the talks.

Among the text was a line saying: “Position Omtzigt, function elsewhere.” Lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt of the Christian Democrat Appeal party has long been a thorn in the side of Rutte’s government with his tough questions, even though the Christian Democrats also were in his last coalition.

After the note was photographed, Rutte told reporters he had not discussed Omtzigt in coalition talks. But he did, according to notes made by civil servants that were published ahead of the debate that started Thursday.

Rutte said in the debate that he did not remember that part of the discussion and had answered reporters’ questions “in good conscience.”

“I am not standing here lying. I am telling the truth,” Rutte said.

Rutte apologized to Omtzigt and pledged: “Where trust has been violated … I will work hard to restore it.”

Omtzigt was not present for the debate. He is taking time off, citing exhaustion.

Rutte’s problems were compounded when he admitted being warned about the contents of notes about coalition talks but refused to reveal who gave him the warning.

Kaag said she had seen a “pattern of forgetfulness, amnesia” from Rutte over his more than a decade in office.

“How can you, in the greatest crisis that we face in the Netherlands, restore the trust that has again been damaged?” Kaag asked.

Lawmakers are now expected to install a new official to restart coalition talks that are expected to take months.