The secret to Rutte’s longevity
Ben Coates is the author of “Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2015) and “The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018).
The autumn of 2010 feels like a long time ago now.
As the year’s end drew near, international news was focused on the fallout from big events: the Arab Spring, the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Meanwhile, in politics, David Cameron had just become prime minister of the United Kingdom, Nicholas Sarkozy was embarking on a bold plan to transform France, and a fresh-faced Barack Obama was partway through his first term in the White House. And in the Netherlands, a young HR manager called Mark Rutte had just become prime minister.
Nearly 12 years later, much has changed. Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama and a host of other world leaders have come and gone, retired to the lucrative lecture circuit or polishing their memoirs. One, however, still remains: Mark Rutte, who as of this week surpassed the record set by his predecessor Ruud Lubbers, becoming the longest-serving Dutch prime minister in history.
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Rutte has now been leading the Netherlands for an uninterrupted stretch of over 4,310 days — meaning he’s been in office longer than any other European Union leader, except for authoritarian-minded Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He’s even been in power longer than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Rutte’s survival is altogether more remarkable, however, given the many moments in which it looked as if he already had one foot out the door. But while short-lived leaders like the U.K.’s Boris Johnson or Italy’s Mario Draghi might be tempted to wonder what they could learn from Rutte’s longevity, the bad news for them is that his survival can be partly attributed to the intricacies of the Dutch political system rather than anything clever he’s done.
Just over the last couple years, there have been several instances in which Rutte’s leadership chapter seemed near a close. In January 2021, for instance, he and his whole cabinet were forced to resign over a scandal involving thousands of families being falsely accused of benefit fraud. And though his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) bounced back to win a resounding election victory, in March 2021, Rutte’s prospects of remaining as premier once again suffered a serious blow, when it was revealed he’d apparently plotted to sideline political rivals by offering them non-jobs outside his cabinet.
At that point, many commentators wrote him off and claimed he’d be forced from office within weeks. Yet, roughly 18 months later, he not only remains in power but is still riding high.
Latest polling shows that Rutte’s VVD is less popular than it used to be, but it’s still far ahead of any other party, supported by roughly four times as many voters as his right-wing rivals or coalition allies, the Christian Democratic Appeal. All this, despite the fact that between 2017 and 2021 alone, Rutte’s government faced no fewer than 36 no-confidence motions and 15 censure votes in parliament.
“Teflon Mark,” many Dutch people call him: the man to whom no dirt can stick. So how does he still soldier on?
In some countries, people often look to their leaders to be a source of visionary leadership or inspiration, providing bold direction and making promises of radical change. In the Dutch system, however, there are 20 different fractions in parliament and, typically, three or four parties governing in coalition together. The job of the prime minister is less Churchillian and more like that of a marriage counselor: coaxing unhappy partners to stick together rather than risking something new.
And this is work for which Rutte seems particularly suited.
A former middle manager at a peanut butter business, Rutte’s known for his low-key style, plainspokenness and skill for managing tricky relationships. “He can bring a kind of peace,” former Deputy Prime Minister Carola Schouten shared recently. “But at the same time . . . he has a very good eye on what is going on everywhere. You could call it a control freak. But he has it all pretty sharp.”
Many in the Netherlands also seem to appreciate Rutte’s humble, down-to-earth style. It’s almost obligatory for every profile of him to mention the way he still cycles to work most days, lives in a modest apartment and drives an ancient Saab. When I happened to sit next to him at a café a while ago, he arrived alone, with no staff or bodyguards, and didn’t seem to mind when my dog tried to steal a bite of his apple pie.
Grand ideas and behavior just aren’t his style. If you want vision, Rutte himself famously once said, “you should go to the eye doctor!”
The biggest factor in Rutte’s survival, though, is probably the way he’s continued to politically evolve, deftly pivoting between appearing like a cosmopolitan liberal and a right-wing populist, depending on the prevailing mood.
Back in 2010, Rutte had started out governing in partnership — although not as a formal coalition — with the far-right populist Geert Wilders, the odd couple happily appearing at a podium together to announce their cooperation. Yet, when that alliance collapsed in 2012, Rutte seamlessly switched to governing in coalition with the left-wing Labour Party — in many ways the antithesis of everything Wilders stands for.
Now, a full decade later, the Dutch leader has found himself in power alongside not just the Christian-democratic CDA and Christian Union parties, but also the centrist Democrats 66.
The chameleon-like aspect of Rutte’s approach can also prove jarring, however.
He staunchly defends EU membership while bitterly opposing financial aid packages; opposes Wilders’ position on immigration while saying he hates the idea of a multicultural society; boasts about his climate policies while denouncing his own reduction of motorway speed limits as a “rotten rule”; and defends the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet before speaking out against it.
Some days he seems like Barack Obama with a Dutch accent, and on other days like Margaret Thatcher with a haircut.
But after all this time in power, today Rutte finally seems to be buffeted by dangerous crosswinds. As the war in Ukraine continues, Dutch petrol prices are nearly the highest in the EU, inflation is running at nearly 12 percent and consumer confidence is at its lowest ever level. The COVID-19 pandemic also battered the Netherlands quite badly, and many expect an official inquiry into the government’s response will be damning. Perhaps most urgently, the country finds itself gripped by angry protests from farmers’ groups, who are furious about environmental policies that will force many farms to downsize or close.
“The number of puzzles on my desk now is quite large,” Rutte admitted this week. And even within his own party, patience seems to be wearing thin — just this week, the VVD’s youth wing called for a new leader to take over soon.
Much like former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Rutte receives praise for having held the state’s ship relatively steady during the turbulent years of Trump, Brexit, COVID-19 and multiple other crises. But like Merkel, he also deserves some criticism for failing to address structural problems.
Said to have craved the record for longest-serving premier, however, Rutte will probably be happy to have broken it this week. It’s often stated he hankers after a top job in Brussels as well — or running NATO, perhaps? — and may be planning an exit sometime soon. For now, though, Rutte seems to be banking on the fact that during uncertain times people crave stability, and that the leader’s office will remain his for as long as he wants it.
Or in his own words, “I do feel that I am gradually getting halfway through.”