Dutch PM Rutte faces no-confidence vote after blunder

FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reacts to the exit polls in the Netherlands' general election in The Hague, Netherlands, March 17, 2021. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Dutch PM Mark Rutte was facing the biggest challenge to his leadership in a decade on Thursday, as opposition parties tabled a no-confidence motion and accused him of lying over remarks he made about what he discussed during talks to form a new Cabinet.

Rutte was the clear winner of March 17 parliamentary elections seen as a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic crisis. Losing a vote of confidence would cripple his ability to form a new government.

The no-confidence vote was to take place later in the day, after Rutte appeared in parliament to explain why he had told reporters he had not discussed a political appointment for one specific lawmaker during confidential formation talks, when it later emerged that he had.

Rutte denies having lied.

"I did not lie, I acted honorably and in good conscience", Rutte said in parliament.

Talks on forming a new government were abruptly put on hold on March 25 when one of the chief negotiators unwittingly revealed a sensitive document to a news photographer as she rushed out of parliament after learning that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

The document showed that negotiators were discussing a position "elsewhere" for popular MP Pieter Omtzigt, a prominent critic of Rutte's previous Cabinet, though Omtzigt's Christian Democrats were a coalition member. The cryptic remark has been interpreted as implying outside parliament or outside the Netherlands.

Rutte told reporters on March 25 he had not been the one to mention Omtzigt's position, but notes from talks given to parliament this week after the row erupted showed he had in fact mentioned it.

In Parliament on Thursday, Rutte told skeptical lawmakers that he had mentioned a Cabinet post for Omtzigt in a private conversation, and not a position "elsewhere" during formation talks, which he said meant he had not said anything untrue to reporters.

Opposition lawmaker Geert Wilders, who tabled the no-confidence motion, said Rutte had "lied to the whole country."

"Seek a job elsewhere yourself," Wilders said. "We cannot go further with this PM."

Omtzigt, who was sworn in as a member of parliament on Wednesday, said the implication he should be removed was "an affront to the Dutch voter."

He demanded full transparency about how his name had come to be on the document.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Bart Meijer and Toby Sterling; Editing by John Stonestreet, Hugh Lawson, Alexandra Hudson)

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