Become a Patron

Netherlands: How the Curtains Fell for Mark Rutte’s 13 Year Premiership

The past few weeks have been anything but calm in Dutch politics. The fourth government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte—from the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD-RE)—collapsed. Early elections are coming. And although everyone assumed Rutte would run for reelection, days after the government collapse he shocked the nation by telling that he will not. An end is finally coming for Rutte’s 13 year-long premiership, the longest in Dutch history. This article will aim to cover how the curtains fell for ‘Teflon Rutte’, of whom people jokingly said his political career would never stop.

Growing Rutte Fatigue

A big reason why Rutte managed to remain prime minister for so long was his ability to work with a wide range of different parties. His first government from 2010 until 2012 relied on the support of Geert Wilders’ right-wing Party For Freedom (PVV→ID). Between 2012 and 2017, Rutte governed with the centre-left Labour Party (PvdA-S&D) exchanging them with liberal Democrats 66 (D66-RE), centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA-EPP) and the Christian Union (CU-EPP) in 2017. Furthermore, the four Rutte governments often lacked a majority in the Senate which made cooperation with more parties in the opposition an imperative.

However, the more scandals and controversies surrounding Mark Rutte emerged throughout his tenure, the harder it became to maintain this strength. The most consequential of these was the Childcare Benefits Scandal over which Rutte’s third government collapsed in January 2021. Thousands of households were falsely accused of welfare fraud and heavily punished by the Tax Agency for years amid access to social benefits was restricted.

Rutte’s VVD still managed to secure a fourth consecutive victory in the 2021 national parliament elections—in part thanks to a rally-around-the-flag effect caused by the COVID19-pandemic—and later forming another coalition government with D66, CDA and CU after ten long months of negotiations. Yet already within two weeks of the election, Rutte’s premiership was hanging on a thread. Documents leaked about Rutte wanting ‘a function somewhere else’ for Pieter Omtzigt. Back then, Omtzigt investigated the Childcare Benefits Scandal which led to the collapse of the Rutte III government. As Omtzigt was still a member of CDA, with whom Rutte wanted to continue governing, his role could pose a threat to the stability of a new government.

Outrage followed and Rutte narrowly survived a motion of no confidence against him. Although Rutte managed to form a fourth government, he was heavily damaged. Also inside VVD, discontent was growing. Among the more conservative wing of the party, members were unhappy with Rutte’s pragmatism. Members complained about Rutte listening too much to D66 and CU which are to the left of VVD. The lack of stricter policies on migration especially annoyed the VVD’s conservative half. In October 2022, members of VVD elected a critic of Rutte’s pragmatism as the new party secretary. It was the first time in years, members dared to oppose the party leadership.

A Government With Opposing Interests

The Rutte IV government formed in January 2022 after ten months of negotiations quickly fell into internal disputes. The hottest dispute of these was about the issue of nitrogen pollution. The Netherlands is a densely populated country: almost 18 million inhabitants in an area smaller than the German state of Lower Saxony. Yet, it is also the world’s second largest agricultural exporter after the United States. This makes the small country emit the most nitrogen in the European Union, far exceeding the amount that EU rules allow.

Hence, courts ruled in 2019 that the Netherlands must decrease its nitrogen pollution as soon as possible. Until then, extracting permits for many construction projects would be paused as the construction sector also pollutes nitrogen. This worsens the housing shortage in the Netherlands. As over half of nitrogen pollution comes from agriculture, the government presented plans in 2022 to decrease the amount of livestock. In reaction to that, farmers and their sympathisers organised major protests. The agrarian-populist Farmer Citizens Movement (BBB-*) used these protests to highlight the divide between the rural East of the Netherlands and the urban West where most of the big cities are located, also known as the Randstad region.

In the regional elections of March 2023, BBB—which won just one  per cent of the vote in the 2021 national parliament elections—surged to first place winning 19 per cent of the vote. The Rutte IV government parties suffered a heavy defeat and their minority in the Senate, which is elected by the new regional legislatures, shrunk significantly. Passing policies for the government would be even more difficult with an opposition that had only grown more hostile to Rutte as prime minister.

The defeat for CDA, the biggest loser of the governing parties in the regional elections, immediately destabilised the government. CDA, once omnipotent in the rural parts of the country, had seen how its strongholds en masse voted for BBB. The party demanded renegotiations about the government’s nitrogen policies. D66 strictly refused such renegotiations. A collapse of the government was averted with the agreement that renegotiations over the nitrogen policies would be done after the summer. The hope from mainly Rutte’s VVD was that the conflict between CDA and D66 would be resolved by then.

The VVD of Prime Minister Rutte has no electoral interest in letting the government collapse over nitrogen pollution and snap elections dominated by that issue. Polls show that VVD-voters are almost evenly split on it. One half is worried about the future of agriculture in the Netherlands and wants the government to take less action against nitrogen pollution. Meanwhile, the other half, mostly urban voters, are worried about the growing housing shortage and thus want more action by the government to decrease livestock and reduce pollution.

If the government per se has to collapse, VVD prefers it to fall over migration. The issue heavily splits the government ever since taking office between the VVD and CDA on one side and D66 and CU on the other side. VVD and CDA want to restrict asylum to the Netherlands while D66 and CU oppose such ideas. By letting the government collapse over migration, the VVD hopes that snap elections will not be dominated by nitrogen pollution. At the same time, VVD hopes to regain from the parties to their right—Correct Answer 21 (JA21-ECR), PVV and BBB which could be enough for a fifth consecutive victory in national parliament elections.

Rutte Gambled and Lost

By June 2023, it became clear that divisions between CDA and D66 over nitrogen pollution were insurmountable. Talks between the government and farmers’ organisations had failed and the likelihood of a government collapse after the summer grew. Simultaneously, VVD began demanding a reform that would heavily restrict the influx of asylum seekers to the Netherlands. D66 and CU reacted to this rather annoyedly, to say the least.

On Wednesday 5 July, Rutte suddenly announced that the government had to decide by Friday 7 July to introduce a temporary ban on family reunifications for asylum seekers. If not, the government would collapse. However, it is widely known that restricting family reunifications for asylum seekers is an unacceptable policy for the Christian Union. Friday evening on 7 July, the four governing parties concluded that no agreement could be reached. The fourth Rutte government collapsed after only 18 months in office.

In a press conference after the government collapse, Mark Rutte told journalists that he would say ‘yes’ to continue leading his VVD into the upcoming early elections to be held on 22 November, if asked. Now the government collapsed over migration, the VVD had the chance to profile themselves on this issue and attract voters from their right. Most parties, meanwhile, were caught by surprise and might be unprepared for elections. A fifth government led by the longest serving prime minister, Rutte, was the goal.

However, in the weekend after the government collapse, the situation turned grim for Rutte. BBB announced that the party ruled out governing with him as prime minister. The centre-left parties PvdA and GreenLeft (GL-G/EFA)—that will run on a joint list—went a step further. The two parties tactically tabled a motion of no confidence against Rutte as caretaker prime minister in order to prevent him from using the premiership as an electoral asset. This motion quickly received support from almost all opposition parties. Even Finance Minister and leader of D66 Sigrid Kaag, annoyed about VVD’s ultimatum and the subsequent government collapse, let Rutte know her party might vote against him. If so, the motion of no confidence would pass and Rutte had to quit as caretaker prime minister with immediate effect.

Rutte’s premiership again hung on a thin thread. Even if he somehow managed to survive the motion of no confidence and avert an electoral defeat in early elections, chances of him forming a new government looked slim as an increasing number of parties ruled him out. On Sunday 9 July, Rutte realised that his bet of letting the government collapse over migration with the hope to increase his chances of reelection had backfired. He told his VVD that he refrains from again leading the party in new elections. A day later, Rutte told parliament about his plans sending shockwaves throughout the country. In response, PvdA and GL cancelled their tactical motion of no confidence. Rutte will remain as caretaker prime minister until after the early elections in November.

Early Elections in November: An Open Race

With all likelihood, Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgöz is succeeding Mark Rutte as leader of the VVD hoping to become the Netherlands’ first female prime minister. With her leading the VVD, the party moves significantly to the right—as a sort of monkey-paw moment for the opposition which wanted to get rid of Rutte and have policies with a more leftist slant.

The Dutch political landscape seems to undergo major changes compared to the 2021 national parliament election. BBB is still high in the polls with a chance at again becoming the largest party. PvdA and GL are running on a joint list that could change the dynamics in elections, as for the first time in years a left-leaning force again has a chance at winning a plurality of the vote. The joint list will likely be led by Vice-President of the EU Commission Frans Timmermans. Last but not least, all eyes are on the earlier discussed and popular member of parliament Pieter Omtzigt, who has been heralded since 2021 to form a party of his own. Will he finally do so and run in the November elections?

All in all, one thing is sure: the next government will not be led by Mark Rutte. An end is coming to the longest serving premiership in Dutch history. Someone else will be the prime minister. However, it is hard to say when exactly that will be as Dutch government formations tend to take a lot of time. It could be so that by next year, summer 2024, Rutte is still there acting as caretaker prime minister.