'Pragmatic' Rutte to lead new Dutch coalition government

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands announced today that his Liberal party and the Social Democrats have agreed on a new coalition, the third Mr. Rutte has headed.

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    Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (r) and Diederik Samsom of the Social Democrats talk prior to a news conference in The Hague today. Mr. Rutte's Liberal Party and the Social Democrats announced they had reached a coalition deal, paving the way for a pro-austerity, pro-European government to be sworn in as early as next week.
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The next time Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has a summit with other European leaders in Brussels, he will be in a shrinking camp of political survivors. 

Since Mr. Rutte first took office two years ago, there have been 17 elections in EU member states where voters could influence who becomes president or prime minister. Only four prime ministers and one president managed to keep their job, and Rutte is one of them.

Rutte's continued survival in The Netherland's top office reflects his ability to cooperate and compromise with his political peers. Today, he announced his new cabinet, forged by an agreement between his center-right Liberal party (VVD) and its new coalition partner, the Social Democrats. But the new government is the third political constellation – each with partners of significantly different leanings – that Rutte will lead within the past year.

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His first, more right-wing government collapsed in April, when firebrand populist Geert Wilders withdrew his support for Rutte's minority government with the center-right Christian Democrats, effectively causing elections. But because EU rules demanded a new budget, three opposition parties joined the minority government for a temporary coalition.

Pro-European tone

Now, Rutte will lead a government that includes a party that during the election campaign took a much more positive tone towards European integration than the prime minister did.

“A prime minister speaks for all parties in the coalition. Expressing a compromise opinion comes with the job, and that's something Rutte can do," says Medy van der Laan of the social-liberal D66 party. "He is not someone with a Great Design."

Rutte started his career at the international corporation Unilever, but shifted into politics when he became deputy minister of Social Affairs and Employment under Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in 2002. Two years later, he switched to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to become deputy minister of Education and Science.

Ms. van der Laan was his colleague at the same ministry and as deputy minister responsible for Culture and Media affairs. “Mark Rutte was a nice, sociable colleague – always cheerful and bright,” van der Laan says. “He always created a good atmosphere. A pleasant guy. Rutte is someone who tries to find similarities instead of differences. And he has a good political antenna.”

An inclusive leader

Arend Jan Boekestijn was a Liberal member of parliament from 2006 until 2009, and praises Rutte's inclusive leadership.

“Often party leaders have their paladins, but not Rutte. He showed no favorites,” Mr. Boekestijn says. Rutte is “intrinsically friendly and genuinely interested in people,” and his social skills make him “a builder of bridges,” Boekestijn adds.

“This man is a connector,” says Eric Trinthamer, who was spokesperson for Rutte and the party in the same period.

“On the campaign trail Rutte would talk to citizens who say they would never vote VVD. But he does manage to shake their hands, make them laugh and afterwards they concur: 'We still don't agree, but it was nice talking to you,'” Mr. Trinthamer says.

Despite his affable reputation, Rutte is still capable of winning a political fight. In 2006, when Rutte won internal elections to become the Liberals' party leader, he ended up in a protracted struggle with his main challenger, Rita Verdonk. Apparently unable to cope with her second place on the Liberal ticket, the popular Ms. Verdonk spent almost a year challenging Rutte's leadership, until he was able to expel her from the party in 2007. That gave Rutte the air he needed to build a solid and tight faction.

Leans right

Ideologically, Rutte's influences run typically center-right. He has called British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher one of his “all-time favorite politicians” and is also an admirer of President Ronald Reagan. Rutte thinks “that every citizen has a duty to try and make something of his life, and that the government should not be in their way,” says Mr. Trinthamer.

But he's not without his nods to leaders farther left than himself. During one of his first TV interviews as prime minister in 2011, Rutte said, "There is nothing wrong with the Netherlands that cannot be cured by what is right with the Netherlands": an allusion to president Bill Clinton's inaugural address in 1993.

Some political opponents have criticized what they say is a lack of a greater vision. In a recent debate in parliament, MP Alexander Pechtold of D66 called on the prime minister to present “ideas and the beginning of a vision on the future of Europe.”

Europe is set to feature prominently in Rutte's new government. Born in 1967, he belongs to a generation for whom European integration no longer is about the prevention of war. In a speech he gave last year, he noted that the European Union is in a “different developmental phase,” which requires “a more modest and realistic conception focusing on wealth and growth instead of the ideological tone of Europe as an elevated project.”

Rutte is apt to take a friendlier approach to Europe than he did previously. Although Rutte claimed that Mr. Wilders' party had not influenced the European politics of his first government, during the election campaign Rutte was tough on issues like the Greek debt crisis. When he was asked in a televised debate about whether to allow more loans to Greece, Rutte firmly stated: no more financial support to Greece.

But now, van der Laan expects Rutte to be "more pliant" in EU affairs. "He is very pragmatic and able to adapt in order to take steps he thinks need taking,” she says.

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