Mark Rutte’s announcement of departure from Dutch politics came as an absolute surprise on Monday, marking the start of a new era for the country that had the same prime minister since 2010.
On Friday, Rutte’s fourth government fell, and on Monday Rutte was supposed to give a brief explanation prior to a debate at the House of Representatives in The Hague.
It was expected to be a tough debate for Rutte, because opposition parties Green Left (GroenLinks), Labor Party (PvdA) and Party for Freedom (PVV) had already announced their support for a motion of no-confidence against Rutte.
If the majority supports the motion of no-confidence, Rutte would have to resign immediately and not, as he intended, be able to continue as a caretaker prime minister until the swearing-in of a new government after the elections, probably to be held in November.
Rutte started his speech by explaining the fall of the government. But in the end, he suddenly said that he also wanted to share something personal and announced his departure from politics, saying he will no longer be available as leader of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the next elections.
“There has been speculation in recent days about what would motivate me,” Rutte said. “The only answer is the Netherlands. My position is completely subordinate to that. On Sunday I decided that I will not be available as a leader for the VVD in the upcoming elections.”
Accustomed to Rutte surviving every crisis, members of opposition parties and his coalition partners were much surprised by the announced departure. For some, the decision came too late, while others expressed their appreciation.
“I have a lot of respect for the step he is taking now, which restores confidence that he can lead this outgoing government during the period until the elections,” said GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver.
Caroline van der Plas, leader of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), called it a “right decision” while Socialist Party leader Lilian Marijnissen said that the departure was “good for the Netherlands.”
PVV leader Geert Wilders praised Rutte: “I am convinced that he wanted the best for the Netherlands. I have a lot of respect for what he has done in all those years.”
“Many thanks for your leadership and unbridled commitment to our country,” Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag said. “In recent years we have worked closely and well together, always trying to bridge political differences in the interest of the country. Much respect for your decision.”
Rutte’s departure marks the end of an era indeed. He stepped own after leading four governments since 2010 as prime minister. He was the man who survived every political storm and always managed to keep things together in the Netherlands. However, in recent years Rutte’s survival skills became less convincing.
During the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, his popularity reached an absolute peak, but criticism increased later about his sometimes apparent indifference and poor memories of certain situations. His third government crashed on Jan. 15, 2021, as a result of the so-called child benefits tax scandal, in which innocent parents were wrongly accused of fraud.
When Rutte’s fourth cabinet was formed, his own position was seriously under pressure for the first time in early 2021. He survived again, refused to stop and started his fourth reign.
On Friday, his last coalition government, with the VVD, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Democrats 66 (D66) and Christian Union (CU) fell over a dispute on the migration policy. Afterward, Rutte showed his usual optimism. When asked whether he wanted to be VVD party leader, Rutte responded: “If you ask me now, I would naturally say yes. Because I have the energy and the ideas for it.”
Three days later, he nevertheless announced his departure from politics. No one foresaw it and the exact consequences are still uncertain. Rutte’s own future and that of his successor at the VVD are unclear. What is clear is that the announced departure of the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history will change the political landscape of the Netherlands a lot.