Dutch PM on the way to his fourth term

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has won a clear victory in Wednesday’s national election to secure a fourth term in office, with exit polls showing the country may be ready for a more conciliatory relationship with the rest of the Europe Union after the traumas of the pandemic.

Rutte’s centre-right party, the VVD, was set to win 36 seats in the 150-strong parliament, up from 33 in 2017, with the pro-European group D66 in second place with 27 seats, according to a poll by Ipsos. Wopke Hoekstra, the budget hawk who served as Rutte’s most recent finance minister, saw his Christian Democrats win 14 seats, five fewer than in the last parliament.

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks after the release of exit polls in The Hague, Netherlands, on Thursday (AEDT).Credit:AP

With the election process hampered by the pandemic, there were no concrete results by Thursday afternoon (AEDT).

The projections set up Rutte, 54, to become the longest serving prime minister in Dutch history. But they also raise questions about whether he can maintain his strategy of resisting common projects with the rest of the EU. The process of putting together a coalition could take months.

“There is huge work ahead of us,” Rutte said after the polls were released, congratulating D66 leader Sigrid Kaag on her “historic” success. “The biggest task will be leading the country through the coronavirus crisis,” he added.

Kaag, who previously worked for the United Nations as a diplomat, saw her party post its best ever results.

Ballot papers are sorted prior to counting in Amsterdam on Wednesday.Credit:AP

“We should cooperate more with France and Germany,” Kaag said last month during an online seminar organised by the research institute Centre for European Reform. “They set the tone and the agenda. It is important to be trustworthy and that we are the go-to partners for the French and Germans.” Another pro-European party, Volt, enters parliament for the first time with three seats.

During an election campaign that was overshadowed by the pandemic, Rutte won praise for his handling of it, adding to his longstanding popularity with voters.

They seem to have overcome an earlier government financial scandal that forced him and his entire cabinet to resign in April, before acting as caretaker until this election.

Rutte said at the time the government had to take political responsibility for a child welfare debt scandal that wrongly labelled thousands of parents as fraudsters.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte leaves the Royal Palace after resigning.Credit:Reuters

Hoekstra’s Christian Democrats, by contrast, slipped to fourth place behind Geert Wilders’ populists. The Christian Democrats and D66 both had 19 seats in the last parliament and Hoekstra may have to cede the Finance Ministry to the pro-European group.

“D66 now clearly is the second biggest party of the country and holds the strongest progressive voice,” Kees Aarts, a professor of politics at Groningen University, said in a phone interview. “This will give them a big voice in a potential new government.”

The Dutch last year fought alongside Austria, Denmark and Sweden to water down the €750 billion-($1.15 trillion) EU recovery package proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. During the campaign, Kaag had criticised that approach, arguing that the Netherlands, the fifth-biggest economy in the bloc, should seek to forge a common project with the EU’s biggest powers.

“The Dutch strategy of making alliances with smaller countries is not in the spirit of Europe,” said Amy Verdun, a visiting professor of European politics at the University of Leiden. “It is not a winning strategy and I think it will change.”

The first priority for the next government will be to get the pandemic under control and then rebuild the economy. Dutch output shrank by 4.1 per cent last year and the European Commission is forecasting an expansion of just 1.8 per cent for 2021, the weakest in the EU.

“We have a big responsibility, the party and myself,” Kaag said in her first comments after the polls were released. “We need to cooperate and we want to be more progressive, greener and more equal.”


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