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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has achieved every incumbent politician’s dream: His voters can’t seem to imagine anyone else doing his job, and none of his most serious rivals seem to want it — at least not during the coronavirus crisis.
Rutte has led the Netherlands since October 2010 and polls shows his center-right VVD party cruising toward a first-place finish in this week’s general election, which is taking place over three days due to the pandemic and reaches its climax on Wednesday.
When the final votes are tallied, the VVD is expected to win as much as 25 percent of the vote. It is a huge share in a fragmented system in which 15 parties are expected to win at least one of 150 seats in parliament.
Such a big victory would put Rutte on track to form his fourth government and, should his coalition hold until August 2022, to break the record as the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.
It would also position him to be one of the most senior EU leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel nears retirement later this year — with only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán able to boast of more years sitting around the European Council table.
Analysts attribute the VVD’s success in part to a craving among the electorate for stability and a steady hand at the helm during the pandemic — even if Rutte’s handling of the crisis has been decidedly mixed.
“In these uncertain times, people seem to overwhelmingly choose stability, continuity and experience. You don’t let people who have never piloted a Boeing fly one for the first time in stormy weather,” said Jan Driessen, Rutte’s former campaign adviser.
Scandals leave no mark
Rutte’s longevity is also the result of his success in brushing off crises and scandals, including a controversy over child benefits, in which thousands of parents were wrongly accused of fraud. That scandal prompted his government to resign in January, and Rutte to assume caretaker status.
In typical everyman fashion, Rutte rode his bicycle to deliver the resignation to King Willem-Alexander. And rather than suffering any fallout from the benefits scandal, the VVD’s polling numbers seemed to improve. The only officials to lose jobs over the issue were Lodewijk Asscher, the leader of the center-left Labor Party, who was social affairs minister when the child benefits problems originally occurred, and Climate Minister Eric Wiebes, of Rutte’s VVD, who was finance minister at the time.
Observers say that Rutte has an uncanny knack for detecting shifts in public sentiment, and for adjusting his own views in tandem. As an example, some point to how Rutte initially defended the holiday tradition of Black Pete — in which children and adults dress up in blackface — as something out of his control, only to turn against it last year and acknowledge the hurt of racism and discrimination. When expedient, Rutte has also shown willingness to tap public sentiment against migrants.
Rival politicians, citing evidence from experts, have also accused Rutte of promoting climate policies that make it impossible for his party to meet its own emissions reduction targets. Jesse Klaver, leader of the Green Left Party, went as far as to accuse Rutte of “lying” and “fraud” over the policy.
Others have charged Rutte with storing up trouble by stoking Euroskeptic sentiment, even though he is strongly in favor of EU membership. Rutte was a leader of the so-called “frugal four” countries that fought in vain for EU governments to be given only loans, rather than non-refundable grants, from the bloc to fund economic recovery from the pandemic.
Sigrid Kaag, the leader of the liberal D66 party, a member of the governing coalition, called Rutte’s approach toward the EU “very shortsighted.”
Yet such criticism seems to bounce off Rutte, with the Dutch broadly content to see him win another term.
Like others across the EU, Dutch citizens have expressed frustration over coronavirus lockdown measures and the slow pace of vaccinations. But Rutte has largely escaped personal blame. On the contrary, he has gotten credit for years of fiscal discipline and budget surpluses that left the Netherlands positioned better than perhaps any other EU country to confront the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Even Wopke Hoekstra, the finance minister and leader of Christian Democratic Appeal — the VVD’s biggest rival other than the far-right Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders — said in one of the campaign’s final debates over the weekend that he would be happy to continue governing in coalition with Rutte. “We get along well personally and we have worked well together,” he said.
Rather than trying to dent Rutte, Hoeskstra has directed venom during the campaign at Wilders, whose party is polling second at about 13 percent, and laying the groundwork for the Freedom Party to once again be excluded from government.
As a result, many Dutch political analysts say the question is not if Rutte will win, but how long it will take to form a coalition, and if he will manage to serve a full four-year mandate, with at least two parliamentary inquiries hanging above his head, and political opponents sharpening their knives for the first post-pandemic chance to take him out.
But doing that would require the country to finally give up on a guy that they have come to appreciate for being utterly normal — an old-fashioned Dutchman, without frills.
He is known for riding his bike to the office, and often dressing in casual clothes. He is widely seen as a leader without pretense — cleaning up his own coffee spills, for instance, or once throwing open his office door and smacking a journalist in the head. If he’s in a rush, he has a 20-year-old Saab that he keeps parked outside his modest apartment in The Hague.
Driessen remembered a Saturday morning in 2006 during Rutte’s campaign for the party leadership when VVD members, including mayors and lawmakers, met in Arnhem.
“Everyone was wearing a suit and waiting for Mark, when suddenly he entered the room wearing worn-out Converse All Stars and very dirty jeans,” Driessen said.
Once, when working with colleagues on a proposal to limit tax deductions for mortgage interest, Rutte confessed that personally owing a large sum to a bank would keep him awake at night. In a country that prides itself on thriftiness, it makes him the guy people want minding the public purse.
Rutte has also convinced voters that he truly loves his job, and seemingly has the energy to do it forever. “I’m more fresh than I was the last three times,” he said in a recent interview. “I like it more every time, the campaigning and elections.”
And while public frustration over lockdown measures have led to protests, and even some violence, there is no doubt among voters that Rutte has suffered along with everyone else: Last May, his 96-year-old mother died in a nursing home, after weeks in which he had not been able to visit her due to his own policies to curb the coronavirus.
The country’s affection for Rutte has led to a rare campaign in the Netherlands built around personality, rather than party or policy. And close associates say that Rutte over the years has come to pay more attention to his image.
Jort Kelder, a journalist and long-time friend of Rutte, said that the prime minister “is very aware of the effect of his public appearance, and he is certainly working on it.” Kelder recalled that when Rutte was fighting for the party leadership, he was advised to be more disciplined.
“Before that time, I would sometimes spot him with a studenty cigar, or even a pipe, but since then he has started exercising, at least three times a week. Only a packet of Bastogne cookies or speculaas is unsafe in his vicinity, he eats it all within seconds,” Kelder said.
Rutte is also known for a love of Indonesian food, and for taking visiting leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, to his favorite local French bistro in The Hague.
Rutte’s main philosophy, according to a new biography, is meeveren: Go with the flow, and let time do its work. He is a manager, not a visionary leader. Rutte himself likes to quote a saying of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about politicians: People with visions should see a doctor.
Lacking any great ideology, he manages to work with almost anyone.
“It’s a necessity in the Dutch political landscape, we are so fragmented, you have no choice but to work together with all those parties,” Rutte said earlier this month. “And I also try to keep the personal relationships good, and that works with most of them.”
Although the VVD is part of the Renew Europe liberal family in the European Parliament, political scientists place the party traditionally on the right side of the political spectrum on economic and social issues.
This year, the party’s election program suggests a shift on economic policy toward the center, advocating for higher minimum wages and less tax for middle incomes and small businesses. However, on migration, the party wants tougher requirements for entry into the Netherlands and more border controls.
Rutte’s first coalition, from 2010 to 2012, was a minority government that got parliamentary support from Wilders. Rutte has since allied with social democrats from the center-left and conservatives from the center-right.
Close associates say he would be glad to ditch the Christian Union, his most junior partner at the moment, should the Labor Party be willing to enter government. Some say Rutte looks back fondly on his collaboration with Diederik Samsom, the former Labor Party leader, from 2012 to 2016.
“Rutte is very pragmatic and flexible,” said Gerdi Verbeet, former speaker of the parliament and member of the Labor Party. “He is more interested in the solution than the way there.”
Rutte is known for having an occasionally explosive temper, sometimes hanging up the phone in fury during arguments. But he is also a master apologizer, quickly pleading for forgiveness and acknowledging when emotions have gotten the better of him.
Kelder described him as a “control freak,” but in such a way “that everyone can have their say … It is a pleasure to work with him, apart from the occasional tantrum.”
One of the few questions hanging over this week’s election is if Rutte will be able to remain in government with a four-party coalition, or if he will need a fifth partner.
Once that question has been settled, there is a general sense that, as occurs with many long-serving leaders, the biggest threat to Rutte will be Rutte himself.
There are two major parliamentary inquiries looming — into the child benefits scandal, and over earthquakes caused by gas drilling in Groningen.
In addition, as the pandemic eases, and rivals will demand scrutiny of the government’s handling of the crisis, and Rutte may pay a price for some of the same fiscal discipline that has won him praise. Cuts in health, social and other sectors kept the Dutch budget flush, but left the country vulnerable when the pandemic hit.
Whatever lies in store, one associate said the Dutch this week are certain to entrust Rutte with governing once more: “He is the only one who is normal enough.”