AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's prospects of forming a new government waned on Saturday as a coalition partner seen as vital for securing a parliamentary majority ruled out joining a new administration led by him.
This threw already stalled talks about forming a new government further into disarray, setting them back by weeks if not months and making it virtually impossible to predict the outcome.
Rutte, 54, had narrowly survived a no-confidence vote on Friday after parliament passed a motion disapproving of his behaviour during government formation talks following last month's election.
But ChristenUnie leader Gert Jan Segers, in an interview with newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, said: "We don't want to return to 'business as usual'. We cannot be part of a fourth Rutte government".
ChristenUnie has been one of four parties in the government led by Rutte's conservative VVD party since 2017.
Parliament will next week appoint an independent official tasked with mapping out ways to get the government formation process moving again.
But the two parties seen as indispensable for the VVD, the Christian Democrats and pro-European Union D66, filed the motion of disapproval on Friday and made it clear it would be very hard for Rutte to return to the negotiating table.
Rutte, who has been in office since 2010 and is often an influential figure in the European Union, was the decisive winner in the national elections two weeks ago.
But he only narrowly survived the no-confidence vote, which accused him of having not spoken the truth about suggestions he made over the possible future of a critical lawmaker from another party.
All the parties outside his coalition voted to have him removed immediately.
That seemed to have left the current coalition as the only viable option for Rutte to form his fourth consecutive government, until Segers' move on Saturday blocked that path.
"Without support of the ChristenUnie a fourth Rutte Cabinet seems unthinkable", political scientist Tom Louwerse said on Twitter.
"The best scenario might be for Rutte to not be involved in the formation of a new government, but stay on as caretaker Prime Minister until there is a new administration."
Rutte, who has been caretaker prime minister since the elections, said on Friday he had not given up hope of forming a new government, as he expected formation talks to resume in the coming weeks.
Rutte's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday morning.
It is unclear how a government without Rutte would look, as given the election result his VVD party will be needed for any stable majority.
The VVD might opt to put forward a candidate other than Rutte to lead a new administration, although if there is no resolution new elections may be called.
Over a decade in power, Rutte skilfully navigated through a range of political minefields, finding the middle ground in a fractured parliament. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic was widely seen as the main reason for his election victory last month.
An opinion poll published after the no-confidence vote debate showed his support among the general public had declined to 25%, from 54% a week earlier.
(Reporting by Bart MeijerEditing by John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)