Dutch prime minister builds consensus the traditional way

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte poses for a picture during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gestures during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrives for a national televised debate with right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders, the first head-to-head meeting of the two political party leaders since the start of the election campaign, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Yves Herman/Pool Photo via AP)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte poses for a picture during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte talks to the media during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte kisses a well-wisher during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte smiles as he poses with a woman during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gestures during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte prides himself on his optimism. He has had it tested repeatedly in six years in office as his country has plumbed the depths of economic crisis, been plunged into mourning by the downing of a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine and, just days before national elections, descended into the worst diplomatic row in years, with NATO ally Turkey.

The 50-year-old leader of the increasingly right-wing People's Party of Freedom and Democracy, known by its Dutch acronym VVD, admits he is carrying scars from his two terms in office, but insists he is the leader his country needs in turbulent times.

Just days before Wednesday's election for the 150-seat lower house of Dutch Parliament, Rutte was embroiled in a diplomatic row with Turkey after refusing to let two Turkish ministers campaign in the Netherlands ahead of Turkey's referendum on constitutional reforms that will give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The decision triggered rioting in Rotterdam and a furious reaction from Turkey, but was seen as strengthening Rutte's image as a strong leader ahead of his own election.

"Rutte is a key player in this because he is prime minister," Amsterdam Free University political scientist Andre Krouwel said in a telephone interview. So he and the VVD can say: "'We are the ones who really protect your interests; we are the ones who go down into the trenches to defend the Netherlands.'

A history graduate and former human resources manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, Rutte is a classic Dutch consensus-builder who has worked with opposition parties to help steer reforms through Parliament that have seen the Netherlands rebound strongly from recession.

Since 2012, his coalition with the center-left Labor Party has had a narrow majority in the lower house of the Dutch Parliament but has constantly sought the support of opposition parties both in the lower house and the Senate for new legislation.

Calmly solving crises and building bridges has become a hallmark of his time in office.

"The power of banging your fist on the table, saying 'this is what we're doing, there is where we're going,' The Dutch prime minister doesn't have that," he said in a wide-ranging television interview last year.

Rutte took over the leadership of the VVD in 2006, beating hard-line former immigration minister Rita Verdonk in a bruising leadership battle. He cemented his position by kicking Verdonk out of the party in 2007 after she criticized him for being silent on the immigration issue.

However, as anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders' popularity has grown in recent years, Rutte, too, has shifted to the right on issues of national identity and immigration.

Rutte even enlisted Wilders to support his first minority coalition in 2010, agreeing to a tougher immigration policy in return for Wilders' support on crucial votes. Wilders brought down the government just 18 months later when he refused to back a tough austerity package Rutte wanted to push through Parliament to drag the Netherlands out of the economic crisis.

Wilders was punished by voters at the ensuing election, while Rutte returned to power in a coalition with Labor and has now vowed not to work with Wilders after Wednesday's election, accusing him of walking away when the going gets tough.

The emotional deep point of Rutte's second term in office came with the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board, nearly 200 of them Dutch citizens, were killed.

"The worst thing I experienced in my time as premier — and my suffering is minimal compared to that of the relatives — was the terrible disaster with flight MH17 and decisions we had to take afterward," he said in the TV interview. "Do we send troops or not? Can we get into the region to bring our people home?"

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