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Dirty Dutch protests start sticking to ‘Teflon Mark’ Rutte

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It was supposed to be a week of celebration for Mark Rutte, who became the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands’ history on Tuesday.

But instead, Rutte finds himself back early from summer recess on Friday for a crunch meeting with farmer group leaders, whose angry protests threaten his decade of dominance of Dutch politics.

The man nicknamed “Teflon Mark” for his ability to ride out trouble unscathed is facing a fierce backlash over a proposed livestock cut, with farmers blocking roads, dumping manure and torching hay bales.   

It’s the latest in a string of crises that has haunted his 12-year tenure, the most notable being a scandal over childcare subsidies, which tipped thousands into poverty and triggered the collapse of his third Cabinet in early 2021. Until now, such troubles have so far failed to put much of a dent in Rutte’s robust poll numbers, and he bounced back to lead his center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) to victory in a general election weeks later in March 2021.

But things may be changing for the 55-year-old. The farmers’ protests, as well as soaring inflation and general lack of trust, have resulted in a new all-time low in the popularity of Rutte’s VVD. According to recent polling, the VVD would lose 13 of its 34 seats in elections if a vote were held now. 

The other parties of the four-party ruling coalition are also bleeding support, with seven out of 10 voters saying they are dissatisfied with the Rutte Cabinet. 

“The number of puzzles on my desk now is quite large,” Rutte said at a press conference just before Dutch politics entered its summer recess.

Foremost of those puzzles is the government’s goal of halving nitrogen output by 2030. The target, designed to comply with EU rules on reducing nitrogen pollution, will require cuts of as much as 95 percent in emissions in some provinces, potentially forcing thousands of farmers out of business. 

Dutch farmers’ organizations are meeting the prime minister on Friday at an undisclosed location with the government’s appointed mediator, Johan Remkes, for a first round of consultations. Alongside Rutte, three other ministers tasked with the nitrogen and agriculture files will also be present. 

The discussions fit the tradition of the Netherlands’ consensus-driven way of doing politics, known as the polder model. But that process might be more difficult in an increasingly polarized society, said Kutsal Yesilkagit, a professor of international governance at Leiden University. 

“The government is struggling to deal with the more radical farmers’ groups that are behind many of the protest actions and who have been refusing to talk to the policymakers,” Yesilkagit said. “This group of angry farmers have become a catalyst of national and international anti-state groups, many of which emerged during the coronavirus crisis,” Yesilkagit said, referring also to recent comments from France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who have framed the Dutch government’s plans as “climate tyranny” out to oppress hard-working citizens.

At the same time, Dutch party politics are putting Rutte in an awkward position. While his own group is losing voters, the relatively new party Farmer-Citizen Movement is polling in second place behind the VVD with around 18 seats. That would be a massive increase from the one seat the party currently has in parliament. 

“Politicians, particularly in the center and on the right, don’t want to speak too harshly about the farmers’ actions because they are afraid it will cost them more voters,” said Yesilkagit. 

Rutte’s declining popularity has also heightened the unease within the VVD over his future. More party insiders are calling for him to step aside in the next general election, due in 2024.

”There are so many problems and crises in our country, that it may no longer be credible if he has to solve them all,” Daphne Lodder, the chairman of the VVD’s youth department, said on political talk show Op1 earlier this week.  

“You can say a lot of things about the VVD, but not that it is a vibrant debating party with big manifestos,” said former MP Mark Verheijen of the VVD. “That’s not in the tradition of the VVD, but certainly over the last 12 years, it just hasn’t happened.”

Rutte himself doesn’t think his expiration date is yet in sight. “I feel that I’m gradually approaching the halfway point,” he joked before the summer break. “But in all those years, I’ve never felt like I’m done. Not for a second. It is the most beautiful job in the world.”

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