By MIKE CORDER Associated Press
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte embarked on a fourth term Monday, leading a coalition that took office amid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown and policy challenges ranging from climate change and housing shortages to the future of agriculture.
King Willem-Alexander formally swore in the new government at a socially-distanced ceremony in the ballroom of the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague.
The ceremony came after a record-breaking coalition formation process following the March 17 general election that highlighted deep divisions in the splintered Dutch political landscape.
Rutte, 54, has already led three coalitions and is now set to become the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister despite only narrowly surviving a no-confidence motion in parliament in April.
He introduced his new team one-by-one to the king before they were formally sworn in by agreeing to the oath of office and then posing for a photo.
Willem-Alexander congratulated the new ministers and wished them “good health and wisdom” in their new jobs.
Among the new faces are Health and Sport Minister Ernst Kuipers, a physician who moves into politics after holding senior positions in the health care sector, including leading a national organization that facilitated the spreading out of patients among hospitals amid the pandemic.
Also new to Dutch politics is Robbert Dijkgraaf, a respected academic who was named Education Minster and returns to the Netherlands after serving since 2012 as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
The swearing-in of the new government also comes almost a year to the day since Rutte and his entire Cabinet resigned to accept political responsibility for a scandal involving the nation’s tax office that wrongly labeled as fraudsters thousands of parents who claimed childcare benefits.
Even so, Rutte will lead a coalition made up of the same four parties that quit to end his third term. His fourth administration is made up of Rutte’s conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, together with the centrist, pro-European D66, the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal and centrist Christian Union. Together, they command a narrow majority in the 150-seat lower house of Dutch parliament, but are in the minority in the upper house.
For the first time in Dutch political history, half of the senior Cabinet ministers are women. One of them, D66 leader Sigrid Kaag, the new finance minister, took part in the swearing-in by videoconference because she is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.
“It’s a slightly different start than I’d hoped for, but I am going to begin full of energy,” Kaag tweeted Sunday.
In a policy blueprint published late last year, the new government outlined plans to cut taxes, offer almost free childcare for working parents, bring back grants for higher education students and a plan to build about 100,000 new homes each year.
The ambitious agenda will cost billions in this country, which is long known for its fiscal frugality.
The new coalition also has vowed to work to win back public trust in government that has been eroded by scandals, polarization, frustration in parts of society at measures to tackle the pandemic and at the drawn-out coalition negotiations.
Rutte said the coalition would seek to work together with “society and with our political colleagues” in parliament to implement reforms.
He has yet to convince everybody. Outside the palace, a protester sang: “Rutte take your garbage with you,” as part of a protest that got underway as the new Cabinet posed for a picture on the steps outside the palace.