Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Is Gone, but the Turn to the Right Continues

Dutch premier Mark Rutte has resigned, pitching his country toward snap elections. He brought down the government in a conflict over migration — and there’s every sign his conservative party, the VVD, will now embrace the nationalist right.

The Netherlands' prime minister Mark Rutte talks to the press after attending the plenary session of a summit of the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (EU-CELAC) at the European Council Building in Brussels on July 18, 2023. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

On one question, both friend and foe can agree: the collapse of the Dutch government this July 7 marked the end of an era. Mark Rutte, the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands’ history, tendered his cabinet’s resignation, announcing he was unable to continue as head of government. The trigger was disagreement within his four-party coalition over immigration policy. Rutte had forcefully pushed for an ultimatum for putting a limit on family reunifications for asylum seekers — but not all his ministers agreed.

Not unjustifiably, critics suspected Rutte of a ruse designed to preserve his power. They suspected he was using a tough stance on immigration to win right-wing voters for his party, the liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), before elections in which it will face many other anti-immigrant contenders. While he initially remained as caretaker prime minister, opposition leaders called a vote of no confidence. But the July 10 debate on the fall of the cabinet brought an unexpected twist, as Rutte announced at that he would quit as party leader and end his political career. “There has been speculation in recent days about what motivates me,” he declared, “The only answer is: the Netherlands.”

Much will undoubtedly be written about the rapid fall of the fourth Rutte cabinet and its interrupted plans. What is certain is that this marks a change in the political weather. With Rutte’s departure, the spell of the 1990s has been shattered for good in the Netherlands, too.

A Technocrat With Nine Lives

During his thirteen years as prime minister, Rutte showed a unique ability to brush off scandals and forge political alliances — earning him the nickname “Teflon Mark” at home and abroad. One of the main scandals concerned childcare benefits, in which 20,000 families — mostly from ethnic-minority backgrounds — were falsely accused by the tax authorities of childcare subsidy fraud. That led ultimately to the resignation of Rutte’s third cabinet. In addition, he survived both a no-confidence vote and a parliamentary motion accusing him of being untrustworthy. And indeed, when it suited, he was not averse to outright lying, twisting words, or having a highly selective memory.

Rutte worked as HR manager at Unilever before becoming state secretary for social affairs in 2002 and party leader of the VVD in 2006. The Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister presented himself as a “postideological” pragmatist and technocrat par excellence. Notoriously, at a lecture in 2013 organized by liberal-conservative weekly Elsevier, he claimed that “vision” was just an “elephant blocking the view.” Despite all the efforts of his spin doctors and campaign staffers, this statement would continue to haunt him. Rightly so, as it unintentionally but aptly summarized his view of politics.

As elsewhere in Europe, the 1990s saw the undisputed hegemony of a neoliberal politics in the Netherlands. Ideologically, Rutte is a child of this era. Indeed, behind his no-nonsense pragmatism and “common sense” lies a well-defined political program. Particularly influential in shaping his views were the ideas of Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. Like Hayek, Rutte embraced a highly reductive individualism — agreeing, as the Austrian-British economist wrote in his 1945 essay on this theme, that social phenomena can only be understood through “individual actions directed towards other people.” Second, the ideas of Rutte and the VVD also draw from the conservative tradition; which becomes apparent, for instance, in their organicist view of society as a bezield verband, an “animated union.” Last, and importantly, Rutte and his party also shared Hayek’s critique of all forms of state interventionism: the government only has a “condition-creating function” for the free market, itself supposed to generate a spontaneous order.

Not coincidentally, Rutte time and again liked to emphasize “personal responsibility.” The VVD’s declaration of principles from 2008 states that responsibility is “the ethical foundation of a society of free people.” Yet unsurprisingly, the way of conceiving this responsibility was rather one-sided, mainly burdening the working and the lower middle classes. The VVD not only advocated substantial wealth tax cuts, but Rutte also made it his calling to abolish dividend taxes, supposedly in order to secure a financially attractive climate for multinationals such as Unilever and Shell. That these proposals were definitively withdrawn in 2018, by cabinet decision, was even recently described by Rutte as “one of my biggest mistakes.”

For Rutte and the VVD, the welfare state had to give way to the so-called “participation society,” an idea introduced in both the Netherlands and Belgium, a euphemism for a major austerity operation in which voluntary initiative by citizens should replace the tasks performed by the government. As extensive research has since then shown, in practice these citizens’ initiatives are only feasible for the upper middle class.

Rutte’s four cabinets, from 2010 to 2023, guided the Netherlands through a series of international crises: from the credit crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, the ruins under Rutte’s governments became increasingly visible. Besides the childcare scandal, this included the gas extraction scandal in the northern province of Groningen; lack of affordable housing; the clear decline of education and health care. After the longest formation in Dutch political history, of 299 days, Rutte’s fourth cabinet emerged, which, because of its ambitious program and explicit attempt to restore the trust of citizens, has been rightly described as a “repair-operation cabinet.”

But with his fourth cabinet, Rutte’s popularity was at an all-time low. As many as 80 percent of voters were dissatisfied with it. The last provincial elections in March added to the pressure. The measures desired by the government to reduce nitrogen emissions helped lead to the massive victory of the right-wing populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), as a voice of protest against the coalition parties. And then, after the fierce criticism following the collapse of the government, the nine-lives technocrat suddenly seemed to have risked his last life.

A Turn to the Right

Since 2000, with the creation of the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF), named after its right-wing populist founder, migration has been one of the defining themes for the Right in the Netherlands. Long able to feed on the specter of so-called “Islamic terrorism,” now it is the steady flow of refugees from war zones, including Ukraine, that the Right presents as an imminent threat. This is fueled by the densely populated country’s special controversies over the placement of refugee accommodations. Images of the village Ter Apel, where the largest Dutch asylum-seeker center is located, frequently appear in the news, showing unrest or refugees sleeping outside due to lack of space.

Immigration had long been a spearhead of the VVD’s political program. At the European level, Rutte pushed for a deal with Turkey and Tunisia for agreements on the reception of refugees. Last March, he pleaded with Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni for a similar deal with several African countries. And yet it was striking that Rutte chose to give his coalition partners an ultimatum. The disagreement was over which category of refugees could apply for family reunion, and Rutte was opposed to those fleeing war in their own countries being able to do so. From the beginning, it was clear that this would prove unacceptable for two centrist coalition partners, the Christian Union (ChristenUnie) and Democrats 66 (D66).

That Rutte chose to let the government fall on the issue of migration signals a further shift to the right in the Dutch political climate. New elections have been announced for November this year. After an exodus of prominent politicians, several parties face a leadership vacuum. A favorite for the VVD is Dilan Yesilgöz, the former minister of justice, who would — ironically — become the first Dutch prime minister to hail from a migrant family. It seems out of the question that former coalition partners still want to cooperate with the VVD. It may instead collaborate with the BBB and, tellingly, with Geert Wilders’s nationalist-populist Freedom Party (PVV), a party the VVD always considered too anti-European and too overly racist, but that in fact stands close to its formal positions on immigration. It is symptomatic of a recent broader trend across Europe in which the conservative right increasingly seeks alliances with the far right.

Left-Wing Allies

Yet the Right isn’t getting everything its own way. A process some time in the making, we can today see increasing collaboration between the social democratic Labor Party (PvdA) and the Green Left (GroenLinks) — an alliance now consolidated in their decision to run one combined list in fall’s elections.

The PvdA had already, since the early 1990s “shaken off its ideological feathers,” in the words of its former leader Wim Kok, and has moved ever more to the center (also entering the VVD-led coalition in Rutte’s second cabinet). But GroenLinks — originally a fusion between four parties of the radical left — remained an opposition party. A timely and promising aspect of this red-green alliance is the attempt to effectively pair the struggle for secure livelihoods to an environmentalist agenda. In some instances, this rapprochement has led to refreshingly direct and combative language. A joint mission statement from 2022 on climate politics states, for instance: “The exploitation of people and the planet have one and the same cause: an untamed capitalist system.” Much depends on whether these parties dare (again) to oppose the right-wing parties with a clear alternative vision of their own — one able to win back part of the working-class vote and mobilize some of the politically disaffected. Although the alliance narrows the voter choice on the left of the political spectrum, it might just bring it closer to an election victory than it has been in years.

The Labor-GroenLinks pact has prompted European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans (PvdA) to quit Brussels, where he was the main architect of the European Green Deal, in order to bid for the leadership of the alliance, and — indirectly — for the prime minister’s job. A popular but also controversial figure, Timmermans now seems to be the sole candidate to lead the left-wing alliance. Two earlier strong contenders have withdrawn, declaring their support for him.

According to recent projections, the new left-wing bloc could challenge the VVD to become the biggest party, leaving the BBB in third. To be sure, the outcome of the coming elections will be decisive for the future of environmental policies in the Netherlands. But what will happen still seems up in the air. One thing is certain: after thirteen years, Rutte’s dream powder has finally worn off and the Netherlands are waking up from their long “visionless” slumber.