Dutch government on the brink of collapse over benefits scandal

Dutch government on the brink of collapse over benefits scandal
Dutch PM Mark Rutte. © Arno Mikkor/Wikimedia

The Dutch cabinet will meet today to decide if the coalition under premier Mark Rutte can continue to govern after a damaging report by a parliamentary commission.

Yesterday Lodewijk Asscher, leader of the socialist party PvdA, stepped down as a result of his role in the scandal that led to the report.

The controversy dates back to 2013, when the so-called ‘Bulgarian fraud’ came to light, revealing that gangs of Eastern Europeans were involved in a large-scale fraud of the child-allowance system.

That led to a huge backlash led by Rutte and coalition partner and social affairs minister Asscher, which led to a situation where the Dutch tax service, which also deals with allowances, came down hard – and in many cases without justification – on anyone applying for child allowance.

As a result, around 26,000 families were unjustly deprived of child allowance, suffering the economic effects that entailed.

The draconian performance of the tax administration only came to light in 2019, when the so-called ‘benefits affair’ became an issue. Even then, the government played down the matter, and declined to cooperate with any investigation.

Nevertheless, a parliamentary investigative commission was set up, and in December 2020 issued a damning report which attacked Asscher in particular, claiming he had been aware of complaints but did nothing about them.

This week the political damage became clear, when a poll showed a large negative effect on the voting intentions for PvdA – the country is in the run-up to a general election on 17 March. Asscher had no option but to resign, describing himself as “no longer in a position to win an election”.

Yesterday a meeting took place of the four parties in the current coalition: the conservative-liberal VVD of Mark Rutte, social-liberal D66, social-democratic PvdA and Christian-democratic Christenunie. Rutte was reported to have demanded from each of the parties a statement on whether they intend to go forward as a government to the elections. In the event none of the parties spoke up.

Today, the regular meeting of the cabinet takes place, and they will be expected to cut the Gordian knot. Most observers in the Netherlands expect the government to topple.

The country is under high tension,” political journalist Marleen de Rooy of Dutch public broadcaster NOS told the VRT.

Asked if the Rutte government might fall, she replied, “I'm pretty sure it will. The report has had a big impact. It's the story of a large group of families who got into trouble because of the government. They didn't do anything wrong, but were dismissed as fraudsters, couldn't pay their bills, and were not heard. People here are saying, ‘If you don't resign for this, then why would you ever?’.

Update: The Dutch government has since announced it will resign. Read more about it here.

Alan Hope

The Brussels Times

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