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New right-of-centre Cabinet-Rutte introduced at The Hague palace

Historic occasion for Dutch liberals


Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

THE HAGUE Conservative liberal leader Mark Rutte has assumed office as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the first liberal to lead a Dutch cabinet since 1918. He pledged an era of austerity and tighter regulation of immigration but distanced himself from the anti-Islam philosophy of populist politician Geert Wilders, whose support is vital for the new minority government. Wilders signed a separate accord with the coalition partners but is not a part of the government.

The alliance of Rutte's party, known as the VVD, and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) signals a continuing shift to the right for a country that has long been seen as one with generous social welfare policies and as a favored destination of political refugees from everywhere.

In the fractured Dutch political scene, it has been difficult to form a majority coalition, especially since the left of centre parties were not very much inclined to agree with Rutte's urge to fast track policies to remedy the current budget imbalances. Wilders who has attracted a wide following with his anti-Islam rhetoric, agreed to prop up the nation's first minority coalition since World War II.

This support gives Rutte's government the slimmest-possible majority, just one seat - in parliament's 150-seat Second Chamber. In return, Rutte's party and coalition partner CDA agreed to clamp down on illegal immigration by tightening asylum procedures and making it harder for new immigrants to bring other family members to the Netherlands. He also agreed to introduce laws banning face-covering burqas and force newcomers to pay for their mandatory citizenship courses.

Absentee

While Rutte and Wilders agree on controlling immigration, they differ on Islam. Wilders calls Islam a "political ideology," while Rutte and the Christian Democrats recognize it as a religion. Rutte says he is not concerned about Islam and that he and Wilders had agreed to disagree on the issue.

Premier Rutte, a 43-year-old bachelor, is a former human resources manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever. He faced criticism for including only three women in his new cabinet.

Although Wilders' support is crucial in Dutch politics today, he was not present at the swearing in ceremony of the new cabinet and was absent from the traditional "family portrait" with the queen afterward.

Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager pledged that his Cabinet colleagues will rein in spending during the government's four-year term, a challenge representing $25 billion in government spending cuts.

After the ceremony at the palace, outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende handed Rutte the keys to the small tower, literally called Het Torentje, which serves as the premier's office at Het Binnenhof.