Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s chances of forming a new government were dealt a serious blow on Friday, as parliament passed a formal motion of disapproval, saying he had not told the truth about remarks made during government formation talks.
However, legislators narrowly failed to pass a no-confidence motion which would have forced Rutte to resign.
“Parliament has given me a serious message and I will try my very best to win back confidence”, Rutte told reporters after the debate. It was not clear when and in what form government formation talks would resume.
“This was a very serious matter, for which I have offered my apologies,” Rutte said.
The crisis arose on Thursday after documents showed that during the negotiations Rutte had discussed a possible new job for a prominent member of parliament who had been critical of his previous cabinet. Rutte had previously said he did not do so.
“The only thing I can do here is say from the bottom of my heart, my toes, say what happened, what went well, what went wrong, that I never lied,” Rutte said in parliament.
Rutte, 54, a conservative who has been in office for more than 10 years, pointed to his record and said he hoped to continue leading the country.
On March 25, talks on forming a new government were abruptly put on hold when one negotiator, rushing out of parliament after learning she had tested positive for the coronavirus, unwittingly revealed a sensitive document to a news photographer.
The document showed negotiators were discussing a position “elsewhere” for popular MP Pieter Omtzigt, a prominent critic of Rutte’s previous cabinet, although Omtzigt’s Christian Democrats were part of the ruling coalition. The cryptic remark has been interpreted as implying outside parliament or outside the Netherlands.
Rutte told reporters on March 25 he had not been the one to mention Omtzigt’s position.
In parliament on Thursday, Rutte told sceptical legislators that he knew he had mentioned a possible cabinet post for Omtzigt in a private conversation but had forgotten that he had also talked about it during formal talks about the Cabinet.
This, he said, meant he had technically not said anything untrue.
Opposition far-right legislator Geert Wilders, who filed the no-confidence motion, said Rutte had “lied to the whole country”.
“Seek a job elsewhere yourself,” Wilders said. “We cannot go further with this PM.”
Omtzigt, who was sworn in as a member of parliament on Wednesday, said the implication he should be removed was “an affront to the Dutch voter”.
He demanded full transparency about how his name had come to be on the document.
Rutte’s conservative VVD party convincingly won last month’s national elections, even though his government resigned in January over a scandal in which thousands of families were wrongfully accused of child care benefit fraud for years, often on the basis of ethnicity.
Omtzigt had persistently asked questions about the matter until it became fully public.