Dutch liberal leader Mark Rutte won the elections and managed to neutralise the threat from anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders. His victory has brought relief for fellow centrist politicians in the EU, who feared that Brexit and Donald Trump could set an unstoppable anti-establishment trend. Rutte boosted his electorate by talking tough on Dutch values and on Turkey’s angry rhetoric. He didn’t hesitate to play with islamophobia in order to grab some of Wilders’s electorate. He wrote an open letter asking all those who do not like life in Netherlands to leave the country.
He is 50 now, but at at 43, in 2010, he was the youngest prime minister in the history of Netherlands. He sticks to a fairly modest lifestyle, and for an hour every week he teaches at a school in a poor district of The Hague.
He drives a second-hand car and uses an old mobile phone. He still lives in the apartment he bought after getting a history degree from prestigious Leiden University in 1992. Once a week, he dines at his favourite Indonesian restaurant in the Dutch capital with his mother, now in her 90s.
He was a talented pianist in his youth and contemplated a career in music. He joined the youth wing of the People‘s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) at the age of 16. After university he joined the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, and worked as a personnel manager in two of its subsidiaries.
Meanwhile he rose up the VVD ranks, and got senior government appointments from 2002 to 2006 in charge of social affairs and education.
He became VVD leader in 2006. When he became prime minister in October 2010 he was the first liberal to lead a ruling coalition in the Netherlands in more than 90 years.
This time, the VVD will have 33 of parliament’s 150 seats. Four parties are expected to be in the new government.
An ardent advocate of free trade, Rutte sees the UK vote to leave the EU as a big blow. He is known to admire Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher – iconic leaders in British Conservative history.
In January, Rutte also stole some of Wilders‘s nationalist thunder by campaigning forcefully for Dutch values.
In a full-page ad in Dutch newspapers Rutte said: “If you live in a country where you get so annoyed with how we deal with each other, you have a choice: Get out! You don‘t have to be here!”
He cited a dispute about an immigrant turned down for a job as a bus driver because he had objected to shaking women‘s hands.
Rutte has ruled out bringing Mr Wilders into the next coalition government, even though Mr Wilders‘s Freedom Party (PVV) came second, winning 20 seats.
Rutte was stung when in 2012 Mr Wilders withdrew support for his government, over planned budget cuts of €16bn. He cannot forget how Wilders then ruined his coalition government.
Rutte’s late father was a Dutch East Indies businessman and was 58 when Mark was born. Mark is the youngest of seven children – the other six were born to his father’s first wife.
One explanation of Rutte’s victory was the way he handled the election run-up cleverly, especially the toxic diplomatic clash with Turkey.
Just days before the vote, Rutte banned two Turkish ministers from addressing campaign rallies in the Netherlands. The Turkish government is wooing ethnic Turks in Europe ahead of a key constitutional referendum.
The ban enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He called the Dutch people “Nazi remnants” and blamed the Dutch over the notorious 1995 Srebrenica massacre, when Bosnian Serbs shot about 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
Rutte demanded an apology, calling Erdogan’s language “unacceptable”. The row overshadowed the election, and Rutte took full advantage of it.
In a TV debate, Wilders told him that he ought to expel the Turkish ambassador. Rutte drew applause when he replied: “Here we see the difference between sitting on the sofa tweeting and leading the country.”