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‘Nokiagate’ pits Dutch lawmakers against Mark Rutte in transparency debate

Mark Rutte’s old Nokia phone took center stage on Thursday during a parliamentary debate about the Dutch prime minister’s habit of deleting text messages. 

Rutte acknowledged earlier in the week that he had for years deleted some of the text messages he received before passing the ones he deemed important on to bureaucrats to be preserved in government archives.

Rutte’s habit was first reported by the newspaper De Volkskrant, which uncovered it as part of freedom of information requests about Rutte’s actions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between the end of 2019 and June 2020, Rutte only forwarded 41, corona-related text messages to be archived.

Rutte escaped relatively unscathed from the debate, despite a motion of no-confidence put forward by far-right leader Geert Wilders that will be voted on later Thursday and that is unlikely to pass. However, the issue comes at an inconvenient time. The prime minister is struggling with declining popularity ratings, not least because of persistent reports about his lack of openness.

The Public Information and Heritage Inspectorate said Thursday it will launch an investigation into the process of archiving at the Ministry of General Affairs, the department led by Rutte. 

In Thursday’s debate, Rutte denied wrongdoing and said part of the reason he had deleted the messages was that until very recently he had used an old Nokia phone without much memory, which forced him to delete messages.

Since switching to a smartphone last week, using a phone has been “hell,” said Rutte, whose attachment to his old Nokia has long boosted his image as a sober man. 

Opposition parties slammed the actions of the prime minister, with many suggesting that the “Nokiagate” scandal is part of a pattern of lack of openness, transparency and trust.

Green Left leader Jesse Klaver said that when the previous cabinet resigned because of a benefits scandal, Rutte promised more openness and a new administrative culture. “Unfortunately, nothing came of the promise.”

“No minutes of meetings, waiting as long as possible to give out information, redacting things and meanwhile laughing it away,” said Pieter Omtzigt, an independent member of the parliament who played a pivotal role in uncovering the scandal. ”We have a prime minister who is undermining the foundations of democracy.”

Wilders said that the prime minister is like “a kind of political Bermuda Triangle, where all kinds of things inexplicably disappear.” And on the argument that Rutte used an old Nokia phone because of his dislike of smartphones, Wilders called it “a bullshit excuse.”

But Rutte denied there being any pattern of purposefully withholding information, saying that for each incident mentioned by opposition parties there is a good explanation for why he or the government acted. 

Instead, Rutte took aim at the constant feeling of distrust of the government by some members of parliament. “Everything starts with distrust, the fundamental feeling that things are being rigged. That’s the basic tone in the parliament.”

Visibly annoyed by comments from Klaver, he added that “if the confidence isn’t there, I am going to do something else.”

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