Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, quits politics
THERE HE WAS again, friendly, imperturbable and in command, even as he announced the end of his political career. Mark Rutte has led the Netherlands since October 2010, making him the senior national leader in the EU after Viktor Orban and the longest-serving Dutch prime minister in history. But on July 10th Mr Rutte told the Dutch parliament that he would not run in an early election slated for November, having unexpectedly dissolved his coalition government on July 7th over a thorny but minor dispute regarding asylum rules. It seemed a small thing to bring down a titan. But Mr Ruttes decision was not so much a response to issues as an effort to end his time in office on his own terms. The fall of the government provoked widespread surprise. Given the limited policy stakes, many observers saw it as the prime ministers strategy to put his centre-right Liberal (VVD) party in a better electoral position. Mr Rutte, whose sole weakness is voters long-standing suspicion that his sunny exterior conceals the heart of a scheming tactician, could not abide this. In the past few days there has been speculation about my motives, and the only answer is: [the interests of] the Netherlands, he said in a brief statement to parliament. Although it earned him long applause from MPs, not all were convinced. Mr Rutte is known internationally for his smiling demeanour and his habit of cycling to work while munching an apple. His regular-guy image, equally at home in a suit or jeans and polo shirt, meshes well with Dutch cultures odd combination of sober Calvinism and unapologetic hedonism. Domestically, his great strength has been his ability to define his party as the centre. Mr Ruttes longevity is all the more remarkable because the Netherlands has one of the most fractured political landscapes in the world. The VVD towers over other parties, but still holds only 34 of the 150 seats in a parliament that boasts 20 different fractions; only one other manages more than 20 MPs. Over the past two decades ever-more seats have gone to hard-right anti-immigrant parties such as the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, and a series of imitators. These outfits tend to siphon off voters from the right of the VVD. In one analysis Mr Ruttes decision to end his coalition over immigration was a sign of the growing strength of Europes conservative populists. In fact, things are more complicated. The proximate cause of the governments fall was a months-long negotiation over changes to the Dutch asylum system, launched after the reception centre which initially takes in nearly all asylum-seekers overflowed last summer. (The government has closed others over the years.) Asylum-seekers were forced to sleep under tarpaulins; an infant died. The right-of-centre parties in Mr Ruttes four-party coalitionthe VVD and the Christian Democratswanted the new system to discourage asylum-seekers. The two left-of-centre partiesthe left-liberal D66 party and the small Christian Unionwanted to protect refugees rights. A compromise was reportedly close. The breaking-point was the VVDs insistence on slowing down family reunification for refugees, a measure that would have affected less than 11,000 immigrants per year, many of them children. That is a small fraction of the Netherlands net immigration (some 228,000 last year). The country sits roughly in the EUs middle in terms of asylum applications per capita. As for the political threat to the VVD, Mr Wilderss vote share has been stagnant for a decade, and newer hard-right parties have floundered. The big populist newcomer is the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), a four-year-old party that took a fifth of the nationwide vote in provincial elections on March 15th. But its main concern is opposition to environmental and climate measures, particularly nitrogen-emission limits that force the government to choose between closing cattle farms or freezing construction (amid a housing crisis). On immigration and asylum, the BBB has taken a vague but moderate stance. Some analysts thought Mr Rutte might have decided to blow up his coalition over asylum so as to define the next election as a battle against the left over immigration. That would put the VVD on stronger ground than a contest with the BBB over climate change. In the debate on July 10th opposition leaders accused the party of cynical manoeuvring. Even Mr Ruttes exit from politics has not dispelled the suspicion that his every move was calculated. When he entered government in 2002 as state secretary for social affairs, Mr Rutte said he planned on staying for four or five years. The former executive at Unilever, a food consortium, expected to return to the business world. Instead, by 2006 he was the leader of the VVD, narrowly chosen by the members over a hardline anti-immigrant candidate. (The next year he kicked her out of the party.) Mr Ruttes first cabinet, in 2010, was a minority coalition with support from the far-right PVV, but after Mr Wilders pulled his backing over budget cuts Mr Rutte pivoted to the centre. His second government in 2012 was a grand coalition with the Labour party, his third and fourth sprawling alliances with D66, the Christian Democrats and the Christian Union. In bidding Mr Rutte farewell on July 10th, opposition leaders mentioned a series of scandals that have compromised his trustworthiness over the past few years. His government was slow to admit the states responsibility for earthquakes caused by gas extraction in the countrys north. Thousands of parents unjustly accused of child-benefit fraud have yet to be compensated. Mr Rutte stepped down over the affair in 2021, but came first in the elections soon after. The second-place finisher, Sigrid Kaag of D66, found herself forced to re-enter a coalition with him. Mr Rutte will remain as caretaker prime minister until a new coalition is formed after Novembers election. That could be a lengthy process: in 2021 coalition talks took nearly ten months. The VVD has announced it will select a new prime-ministerial candidate within the week. But it has no one on its benches with Mr Ruttes authority and political talent. Mr Rutte is unlikely to disappear. He is widely rumoured to be a candidate to replace Jens Stoltenberg as head of NATO when his (extended) term runs out next year. As for Dutch politics, the prime minister has defined the centre for so long that it is unclear where it lies without him. Opposition leaders attacked Mr Rutte during the debate for dissolving his coalition in the middle of crises over nitrogen, migration and the war in Ukraine. Pieter Omtzigt, an independent MP, wryly noted that he had never expected his colleagues to reproach Mr Rutte for leaving. As the Netherlands enters a period of political turbulence, more of them may find themselves missing his calm, upbeat, infuriatingly slick presence.