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Dutch PM Rutte fights for his political life in tough debate

Last Updated Apr 1, 2021 at 9:29 am EDT

FILE- In this Sunday, March 14, 2021, file photo, a police man passes stocks with the head of caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a demonstration, ahead of three days of voting starting Monday in a general election, to protest government policies including the curfew, lockdown and coronavirus related restrictions in The Hague, Netherlands. Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was fighting for his political life Thursday in a bitter parliamentary debate about the country's derailed process of forming a new ruling coalition following elections last month. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was fighting for his political life Thursday in a bitter parliamentary debate about the country’s derailed process of forming a new ruling coalition following an election last month.

Rutte’s conservative party, known by its Dutch acronym VVD, won the most seats in parliament in the vote, putting him in line to form his fourth governing coalition and possibly become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

That looked a long way off Thursday.

Negotiations halted a week ago after one of the two officials leading the coalition talks tested positive for COVID-19 and was photographed carrying notes laying out details of the talks.

Among the text was a line saying: “Position Omtzigt. Position elsewhere.” That was a reference to popular lawmaker Peter Omtzigt of the Christian Democrat Appeal party, who has long been a thorn in the side of the government with his tough questions.

After the note was photographed, Rutte told reporters last week that he had not discussed Omtzigt in his coalition talks. But according to notes made by civil servants that were published Thursday, Rutte did talk about the lawmaker.

Rutte told the ensuing debate that he did not remember that part of the discussion and had answered reporters’ questions “in good conscience.”

“I am not standing here lying. I am telling the truth,” Rutte said.

The debate around Rutte’s leadership comes as the Netherlands is battling rising coronavirus infections despite a months-long lockdown. Rutte’s popularity soared last year as he was seen as a steady hand steering the Netherlands through the coronavirus crisis, but ebbed as the March election approached.

Opposition lawmaker Geert Wilders demanded Rutte step down immediately and called for a motion of no confidence.

“Don’t you realize that your time is up?” Wilders said.

Omtzigt was not present for the debate between party leaders. He is taking time off, after complaining of exhaustion.

Sigrid Kaag, leader of the centrist D66 party that finished second in the election, said she had seen a “pattern of forgetfulness, amnesia” from Rutte over his more than a decade in office.

“How can you, in the greatest crisis that we face in the Netherlands, restore the trust that has again been damaged?” Kaag asked.

Mike Corder, The Associated Press

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