Liberal Dutch premier, champion of status quo
Analysts said his uncharacteristically strong stand on the diplomatic crisis with Turkey has boosted his image with voters
Jan HENNOP –
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, set to lead The Netherlands for a third successive term, is a free-marketeer whose promise of safety and stability on Wednesday once again reaped dividends for his party.
The last-born to a middle-class family of seven children, Rutte, 50, rose through Dutch corporate and political ranks to be elected in 2010 as the lowland country’s first liberal prime minister since 1918.
A bachelor, who often cites Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill as his role models, Rutte has led the country through six years of turbulence to relative calm.
“We are living in very unstable and insecure times.
My main task as prime minister is to keep this country safe and stable,” Rutte recently said on the campaign trail.
On Wednesday, voters appeared to have renewed their trust in him, with his party once again fending off a challenge from far-right MP Geert Wilders to emerge as the largest with a predicted 31 seats — down from 40 in the outgoing parliament.
“This was the evening when The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said ‘stop’ to the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte told cheering supporters.
Today Rutte sees his greatest achievement as steering the country back to economic growth through a campaign of vigorous cost-cutting during the euro zone crisis.
Analysts said his uncharacteristically strong stand since the weekend in a diplomatic crisis with Turkey — when Dutch authorities expelled one Turkish minister while another was refused permission to fly into the country to attend a pro-Ankara rally — has boosted his image with voters.
His usual easy-going style, ever-ready optimism — “I have no talent for pessimism and moaning” — and approachability have won Rutte friends inside and out of parliament.
A part-time high-school teacher — he teaches for an hour every Thursday in a poor district of The Hague — Rutte stands little on convention.
He drives a second-hand car, uses an old mobile phone and still lives in the apartment he bought after graduating from the prestigious Leiden University with a master’s degree in history in 1992.
The slim, lanky politician is often spotted about town on a Friday evening, even popping into a local Hague pizzeria wearing a sweater, jeans and sneakers.
He is a self-described creature of habit, who still dines with his mother, now in her nineties, on Indonesian cuisine most Saturday evenings. Rutte has admitted that he was deeply affected by the death of his father, as well as of one of his brothers who died of Aids in 1989.
“We have always been a liberal family, and the subject of my brother’s death was never taboo,” Rutte said.
Although he initially had plans to become a concert pianist, it was at Leiden where Rutte first cut his teeth on the VVD’s liberal politics. “Mark Rutte is a Dutchman with an American dream,” his friend of more than 20 years, Jan Epping, says in Rutte’s biography.
“For him, the strength of a city like New York or a country like the United States is that people born with nothing can really make something of their lives,” Eric Trinthamer, his parliamentary group’s former spokesman, said.
Behind his friendly and affable personality lurks an astute politician who styles himself on the likes of leading British Conservatives — he is a good friend of former British premier David Cameron — or on icons from Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democratic Union.
Rutte first showed his strong will and mettle during a battle within his own party in 2006-07, when he eventually expelled his main rival for repeatedly questioning his abilities to be party leader.
He formed his first government by entering a coalition supported by the Freedom Party (PVV) of Wilders, who walked out of austerity talks in April 2012, causing the government’s collapse.
Rutte has vowed not to work with him again. “Wilders is a pessimist and a man who walked away from his responsibilities,” said Rutte. “I on the other hand am an incredibly optimistic person.” — AFP