Rutte Wins Dutch Election With Signs of Softening on Europe

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won a clear victory in Wednesday’s national election to secure a fourth term in office, with early results showing the country may be ready for a more conciliatory relationship with the rest of Europe after the traumas of the pandemic.

Rutte’s center-right party, the VVD, won 36 seats in the 150-strong parliament, up from 33 in 2017, with the pro-European group D66 in second place with 24 seats, according to a projection early Thursday by Dutch news agency ANP with 63% of votes counted.

The results set up Rutte, 54, to become the longest serving premier in Dutch history as he looks to steer the Netherlands out of the pandemic. But they also raise questions about whether he’ll maintain his strategy of resisting common projects with the rest of the European Union. The process of putting together a coalition could take months.

“There is huge work ahead of us,” Rutte said after exit polls were released. “The biggest task will be leading the country through the corona crisis.”

He congratulated D66 leader Sigrid Kaag on her “historic” success.

“We should cooperate more with France and Germany,” 59-year-old Kaag, who previously worked for the United Nations as a diplomat, said last month during an online seminar organized by the Centre for European Reform, a research institute. “They set the tone and the agenda. It is important to be trustworthy and that we are the go-to partners for the French and Germans.”

Another pro-European party, Volt, is projected to enter parliament for the first time with three seats.

‘Progressive Voice’

“D66 now clearly is the second biggest party of the country and holds the strongest progressive voice,” Kees Aarts, a professor of politics at Groningen University, said in a phone interview. “This will give them a big voice in a potential new government.”

Wopke Hoekstra, who served as Rutte’s most recent finance minister, is projected to win 15 seats with his Christian Democrats, behind the 17 seats Geert Wilders’ populists is winning. The Christian Democrats and D66 both had 19 seats in the last parliament and Hoekstra may have to cede the finance ministry to the pro-European group.

“We have a big responsibility, the party and myself,” Kaag said in her first comments after the polls were released. “We need to cooperate and we want to be more progressive, greener and more equal.”

As the two main winners, Rutte and Kaag are expected to take the initiative in coalition negotiations, while Hoekstra and the leaders of the left wing groups -- Labor, the Socialist Party and the Green Left -- are likely to come under pressure over their losses.

The Dutch last year fought alongside Austria, Denmark and Sweden to water down the 750 billion-euro ($900 billion) EU recovery package proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France. During the campaign, Kaag had criticized that approach, arguing that the Netherlands, the fifth-biggest economy in the bloc, should seek to forge a common project with the EU’s biggest powers.

“The Dutch strategy of making alliances with smaller countries is not in the spirit of Europe,” said Amy Verdun, a visiting professor of European politics at the University of Leiden. “It is not a winning strategy and I think it will change.”

The first priority for the next government will be to get the pandemic under control and then rebuild the economy. Dutch output shrank by 4.1% last year and the European Commission is forecasting an expansion of just 1.8% for 2021, the weakest in the European Union.

The main Dutch newspapers focused on the success of D66, with de Volkskrant referring to the “Kaag effect” and NRC Handelsblad writing that the “pro-European sounds” of her party were echoed by the arrival in parliament Volt, a smaller ally. De Telegraaf had a photo of Rutte raising a glass with VVD colleagues on its front page.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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