Dutch PM Rutte eyes new coalition after election win

Mark Rutte is set to become the longest serving leader in Dutch history
Mark Rutte is set to become the longest serving leader in Dutch history PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW POOL/AFP
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The Hague (AFP)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday eyed coalition partners for a fourth term in office after claiming victory in coronavirus-dominated elections.

Already one of Europe's longest serving leaders after 10 years in power, Rutte and his liberal VVD party look set to have a mandate to form a coalition.

The VVD is projected to win 35 seats in the 150 seat parliament, while the other big winner of the night was the centrist pro-EU D66 party, with 24.

Anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders lost his place as the second biggest party, dropping to 17 seats, while populist, virus-sceptic Thierry Baudet surged.

The seats are based on Dutch media projections with 88 percent of votes counted.

Party leaders will meet the head of the lower chamber of parliament, Khadija Arib, on Thursday afternoon to discuss how to form a government, ANP news agency reported.

Rutte said late Wednesday it was "obvious" his party would talk with D66, led by foreign trade minister Sigrid Kaag, to form a coalition.

He would "also very much like to work with the CDA", the Christian Democratic Appeal of finance minister Wopke Hoekstra despite it falling to 15 seats.

- 'Another 10 years' -

Both parties were in Rutte's previous coalition, which resigned in January over a scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of childcare fraud.

Rutte said late on Wednesday voters had given his party an "overwhelming vote of confidence".

He conceded that "not everything has gone well in the last 10 years" but said the key issue was how to "rebuild" the country after the coronavirus pandemic.

The new government needed to find a way out of the crisis so that businesses, theatres, cinemas and museums could reopen, he added.

"I have the energy for another 10 years," he added.

Rutte would becoming the longest serving prime minister in Dutch history if he is still in power by the end of 2022.

But forming a new coalition could be complicated as the three parties will fall two seats short of a simple majority of 76, meaning they will have to find another partner or partners.

The political landscape is further complicated by the fact that the Dutch parliament is set to have a record-equalling 17 parties.

Dutch media said the coalition could look towards the left, as the smallest party in the current coalition, the centre-right Christen Unie, may not be a good fit with D66.

- 'Future won't wait' -

That would boost for traditional left-wing parties that had a bad night.

The once-mighty Labour party failed to add to its nine seats, and Green-Left, the stars of the 2017 election, slumped to seven seats.

Meanwhile, former diplomat Kaag was pictured dancing on a table after D66's strong showing in the election.

"What a wonderful evening," she tweeted. "Now time to get started, the future won't wait."

During the campaign she criticised Rutte's stance on the EU, where he has been dubbed "Mr No" for holding out on financial aid to virus-hit southern countries.

Populist parties meanwhile maintain a significant if fragmented place in parliament.

Despite bleached-blonde far-right leader Wilders losing some seats, his PVV (Freedom Party) remains the third largest, with his fiery rhetoric on Islam still appealing to some voters.

The Netherlands has recorded more than 1.1 million coronavirus infections and 16,000 deaths, and is currently under its most stringent health measures yet including a curfew that sparked riots in January.