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Dutch PM Mark Rutte narrowly survives no-confidence vote

Opposition party leaders accused Rutte of lying and called on him to resign. After surviving the latest no-confidence vote, he is on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands.

Mark Rutte speaks at the House of Representatives in the Hague on April 1, 2021.

Mark Rutte resigned in January over a child benefits scandal but remained as a caretaker prime minister

Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte defended his leadership on Thursday after notes on forming the new coalition government contradicted his statements to the press.

He narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, after opposition party leaders accused Rutte of lying and called on him to resign as lawmakers debated confidence in him to form a new Cabinet.

Earlier this month, Rutte's center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) secured more parliament seats in the election than any other party, putting them in prime position to lead a new coalition government. 

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How did the crisis begin? 

The process of forming Rutte's fourth coalition has stalled since two officials leading the talks tested positive for COVID-19.

Photojournalists captured one of the two officials, Kajsa Ollongren of the centrist party D66, as she rushed out of parliament following her coronavirus test result. 

Ollongren appeared in the picture holding documents that contained notes on the coalition talks. 

Kajsa Ollongren leaves the Stadhouderskamer after a positive result of a corona test.

Kajsa Ollongren photographed holding notes from the coalition talks

The documents had a line saying "Position Omtzigt. Position elsewhere," in reference to lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt of the Christian Democratic Appeal party (CDA). 

Omtzigt had been vocal about the childcare benefits scandal, which forced Rutte's former Cabinet to resign in January.

What did Rutte say? 

Last week, Rutte told reporters that he had not discussed Omtzigt in coalition negotiations. But more notes published on Thursday confirmed that he did in fact talk about the CDA lawmaker.

During an ensuing debate on Thursday, Rutte said that he did not remember that part of the coalition talks and had answered reporters' questions "in good conscience."

"I am not standing here lying. I am telling the truth," Rutte said.

He added that he only remembered when he received a call on Thursday morning about the talks. Rutte refused to identify the source. 

The prime minister insisted that "elsewhere" meant that he suggested that Omtzigt moved to a ministerial position. 

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How did lawmakers respond? 

Geert Wilders of the right-wing nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV) slammed Rutte's leadership and called for a motion of no confidence.

"Don't you realize that your time is up?" Wilders said. "Seek a job elsewhere yourself."

Sigrid Kaag of the D66 party, which came in second behind Rutte's PVD in the March election, said she had seen a "pattern of forgetfulness, amnesia" from Rutte. 

"How can you, in the greatest crisis that we face in the Netherlands, restore the trust that has again been damaged?" Kaag asked.

Omtzigt, who was sworn as a member of parliament on Wednesday, was not present for the Thursday debate. He earlier said his removal from the parliament was "an affront to the Dutch voter," as quoted by Reuters news agency. 

The CDA, Omtzigt's party, will decide whether or not to support Rutte after they hear Ollongren's explanation of the "position elsewhere" note, according to Dutch public broadcaster NOS. The parliament moved to question Ollongren after confronting Rutte. 

What is next for Rutte? 

"I have led the country through an economic crisis, a refugee crisis and now a health crisis, a pandemic," Rutte said in the parliament as he pleaded for confidence. 

"I want to continue with that and form a new coalition with other parties to run this country. And I hope that I get enough confidence for that."

Wilders, whose party recently lost seats, already called for new elections, according to local media. 

Dubbed "Teflon Mark," Rutte has survived scandals and no-confidence votes in the past. After surviving the latest no-confidence vote, he is on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands. 

This is an updated version of an earlier article.

fb, lc/sri (AP, AFP, Reuters)