Playing smart ducking games comes naturally to Mark Rutte. The 56-year-old Dutch prime minister’s decision to depart from the Netherlands’ political landscape is his latest. At once, Mr Rutte’s decision not to stand at next election in November, made public in the Dutch parliament on July 10th, precipitates a snap election. The stakes are high as never before. Mr Rutte may be the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister, for 13 years, and leader of the centre-right and the liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, aka VVD, for 17 years. That record stands tainted now.
The Predicament was Evident
Sadly, Mr Rutte cannot be proud of his decision as his nation is deeply polarised. So great is his ability to escape the stings of scandals and his constant sizing up of poll-fresh alliances that his epithet Teflon Mark was well-deserved. This epithet is under severe test today, perhaps facing the threat of being junked. As the collapse of his government, his shock resignation and the dissolution of his four-party coalition government on July 7th, will end in a snap election, the exit is an endgame for Mr Rutte. His departure has put the Dutch politics and its 20 parties in a tizzy over the rise of populists. https://www.ft.com/content/0db0a032-db92-47ed-8071-7c6a33fc0ed9
Mr Rutte will leave the scene in a void, too hard to fill by any in the Netherlands. This is because the Netherlands has been reeling under a cost of living and energy crisis post-pandemic. Though rising global migration and green transition are god-sent gifts for the radical right, they had become Mr Rutte’s challenges as they percolated down into the Dutch political mainstream. Mr Rutte’s predicament was evident in the abruptness of his exit. In a jiffy, his 4-party alliance crumbled after he went overboard with his harsh and much-criticised asylum rules.
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Difficult to Control the Illiberals
The asylum rules were thrust on the Dutch when Mr Rutte was already neck-deep in a crisis caused by provincial elections. In these elections, the populist Farmer-Citizen Party, aka BBB, had won more seats in the senate. Though the BBB party was against Mr Rutte’s plans to reduce livestock to meet emission targets, the party continues to lead in national polls. Mr Rutte’s liberal-conservative VVD party is trailing behind. Reducing livestock had become a huge issue for Mr Rutte as the Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of farm products on the planet. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/05/17/netherlands-two-cows- per-field-limit-mark-rutte/
Inevitably, farm issues tend to get blown up in the Netherlands. Farming is a highly emotive subject for the Dutch. Worse, the livestock-reduction issue was magnified by the opportunistic far right, which is ever on the lookout for conspiracy theories and global plots against local farmers. However, as a canny Teflon Centrist, Mr Rutte was able to create consensus and rein in illiberal political groups in the bargain. As he exits the scene now, controlling the illiberals will be more difficult. With a snap poll in the Netherlands on the horizon, Europe will see in all four critical polls in Europe this year.
An Era of Austerity and Populism
Spain is getting set to face a snap election this month. The poll could bring in the radical right. Slovakia too could see in power a Putin-sympathising party, which takes a lead in the polls. Poland is girding up to welcome its conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party for a third term. Mr Rutte’s exit will be a shot in the arm thus for the radical right. After all, Mr Rutte was a liberal and a fiscally-prudent leader with great influence on European Union’s politics. Yet, he had to exit. Encouraged, the radical right is girding up for a major revival in the Netherlands. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jul/11/the-guardian-view- on-mark-ruttes-resignation-a-departure-with-import-beyond-dutch-borders
This will usher in an era of austerity and populism. Populist-nationalist parties, who love to target migrants and minorities, would soon have a field day. Is this Armageddon for the Netherlands? Where does the Dutch go from here? What happens to the divisive Dutch politics? These questions hang heavily before the Dutch voters. Until the elections are over, Mr Rutte’s caretaker government cannot take any major policy decision. It can only manage routine day-to-day issues. However, Mr Rutte did not shy away from indicating the contrary in his post-resignation press conference.
Getting Ready for the Radical Right
In this press meet, Mr Rutte maintained that the collapse of his government will not hamper him from handling issues such as backing Ukraine in its war with Russia. This may be true to an extent. Yet, Mr Rutte removing himself from the Dutch political scene will have serious impact on domestic politics. The Dutch politics is divisive and dreadfully polarised, split even on minor issues that become highly emotive subjects fast. As Mr Rutte strode across the Netherlands as a Teflon Colossus for years, his abrupt exit will throw open the contest for his party’s leadership too. https://www.uva.nl/en/shared-content/faculteiten/en/faculteit-der-maatschappij- en gedragswetenschappen/news/2021/01/elections-polarisation-in-the- netherlands-how-divided-are-we.html?cb
Even as leaders of other major parties prepare to relinquish their charge, Mr Rutte is busy finalising terms of reunification for the families of refugees. This is why Mr Rutte is not giving up on carving two categories of asylum. He continues to remain immersed in creating temporary asylum for people fleeing conflict zones and a permanent asylum for those fleeing zones of politico-religious persecution. Meanwhile, the nation is getting ready for a government that will welcome the radical-right nationalists.
Mainstream political parties in the Netherlands are unlikely to adopt an approach that is radically different. The Dutch are not mature enough to embrace Mr Rutte’s way of thinking to let in a fiscally-prudent conservative centrist as their prime minister. As the asylum issue is expected to occupy mental spaces in the Netherlands for long, the controversy will prove to be the Netherland’s historical moment of reckoning. The rumoured possibility of Mr Rutte taking up NATO’s top job as Secretary General from Jens Stoltenberg notwithstanding, it will be Mr Rutte’s teflon-tainted moment.