Discover more from The Low Country
End of the Rutte era, finally?
Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Mark Rutte survived every crisis, his hold on power seemed unshakable. But now his lengthy time in office appears to be drawing to a long-overdue close.
As generally anticipated, Mark Rutte’s governing coalition, colloquially known as Rutte IV, finally collapsed on Friday 6 July. The proximate cause was a disagreement over asylum-seeker policy, one of a number of festering crises that the fragile four-party coalition had notably failed to address. At the recent annual meeting of Rutte’s own party, the center-right, economically liberal but (somewhat) socially conservative VVD, the prime minister — and leader of the party — came under increasing pressure to commit to meaningful steps to tackle the problem. After many months of “fruitful” discussions (aren’t they always?), the coalition ran aground over the specific issue of family reunification. The pro-family Christian Union considered its inclusion in any agreement as non-negotiable. This comparatively minor issue was ultimately the battle that Mark Rutte the politician chose to make his last.
On Monday, Rutte announced to much surprise that he would remain as VVD party leader only until the election, after which Holland’s longest-serving postwar prime minister would be leaving Dutch politics for good.
There is much speculation that this was all a calculated move, that the particular issue is one with which the VVD hopes to shore up its flagging political capital rather more contentious matters where the stakes could be far higher. The Green and Labor parties had a no-confidence vote in the pipeline that had it passed would have sidelined Rutte, hence perhaps he headed for the proverbial exit to preempt that. Only a week earlier, sensing his coalition was on the verge of collapse, he had declared himself full of energy and optimism, was ready for fresh elections and would seek a fifth term in office. His surprising announcement might just be a head-fake and he will circle back around and pick up the pieces later. We shall see.
We are told that the earliest new elections can take place is at the beginning of November, for reasons not entirely clear. In the past the coalition-forming process takes on average three months; however, last time it took an agonizing nine months and the new coalition was made up of exactly the same four parties as the previous. It was essentially an exercise in ministerial musical chairs, no one’s idea of progress to be sure, but perhaps that was precisely the point.
So, if the past is any indication, the new parliament and the new Cabinet of Ministers will be installed in February or March, seven or eight months from now. The cabinet is now officially demissionair, caretaker status, a situation that probably suits Mark Rutte just fine, given his lack of interest in truly governing. He can continue to occupy the Torentje, the prime minister’s office, he can head to Brussels to sit at the Big Boy’s table (European Council), and exercise the other prerogatives of power with little or no accountability, exactly the way he likes it.
It must be said though that the timing for yet another prolonged interregnum could not be worse. The various lingering scandals and crises that I’ve mentioned previously on these pages continue to haunt the public sphere; inflation is booming, neighboring Germany (our most important trade partner) heading into recession, the energy crisis likely to flare up again as winter approaches. The hugely destructive and divisive farming crisis festers ever onward, long-running negotiations with the agricultural sector having recently collapsed with no agreement.
Then there is the conflict in Ukraine, which Mark Rutte insists is “also our war”, as he dutifully signs off on shipping Patriot missile systems (maybe F16s as well?) to that tragic and doomed country. The NATO alliance is looking increasingly fragile; the internal contradictions of the EU project are becoming evermore apparent. Lacking competent and decisive leadership, we remain paralyzed, like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck. We clutch at straws, blaming Vladimir Putin for our woes, pretending America is our ever-trustworthy friend.
In an earlier post, I compared Mark Rutte with Angela Merkel, both being exceptionally skilled at political intrigue, the dark art of gaining and holding on to power within our antiquated parliamentary democracies. Both were successful not because of clear ideological convictions and vision but precisely because of the lack thereof. Mark Rutte clung to power by forsaking interests of his electoral base, the petite bourgeoisie of the VVD, and embraced what the British political analyst Matthew Goodwin calls “radical progressivism” of the cosmopolitan elite. Syp Wynia, the veteran journalist who I frequently turn to for insights into Dutch politics, put it this way in a commentary published over the weekend (my translation):
[O]ver the course of the past decade, the Rutte cabinets became more and more cabinets that conformed to the agenda of a relatively small, hip, urbane, cosmopolitan and Europhile elite captivated by sustainability, diversity and woke.
As part of a bargain to stay in power, Rutte went along with earmarking jaw-dropping sums to fund the obsessions of these idealistic middle-class urbanites dedicated to saving the planet with missionary zeal while blithely indifferent to the material underpinnings of our modern societies. This “fashionable” agenda has certainly not been in the interests of Rutte’s electoral base within the VVD, nor for that matter that of the once mighty Christian Democrat (CDA) party, which likewise gradually turned its back on its electoral base among the Dutch farmers and is now facing inexorable electoral extinction.
Leaders such as Rutte and Merkel suck the oxygen from the room, so to speak. Just as no strong leader emerged within the German CDU to take her place, the VVD has no compelling replacement for Mark Rutte. Such leaders don’t build movements, they build influence networks; strong, independent-minded, principled individuals are squeezed out of the system to be replaced by pliant parliamentary foot soldiers. They likewise cultivate a kind of controlled opposition which is as inclined to wheeling and dealing as they are. This brave new world of post-modern depoliticized governance doesn’t work in the long run and is in the process of disintegrating.
Signs are emerging of an authentic opposition, in the Netherlands as in other increasingly shaky liberal democracies. In a future post I’ll discuss a bit more the evolving contours of that opposition.