Dutch Cabinet meets amid speculation government will quit


THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – The Dutch Cabinet was set to meet Friday amid strong speculation that Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government will resign to take political responsibility for a scandal involving investigations into child welfare payments that wrongly labeled thousands of parents as fraudsters.

If Rutte’s center-right, four-party coalition quits, it will come just under a month before parliament was due to break up ahead of a March 17 general election. Rutte’s government would remain in power in a caretaker capacity until a new coalition is formed after the election.

The Netherlands is the third European country thrown into political uncertainty this week in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. In Estonia, the government resigned over a corruption scandal, while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s administration is at risk of collapse after a small coalition party withdrew its support.

Rutte said earlier this week that his government would be able to keep taking tough policy decisions in the battle against the coronavirus even if it is in caretaker mode. The country already is in a tough lockdown until at least Feb. 9 and the government is considering imposing a curfew for the first time since the pandemic began amid fears about new, more contagious variants of the virus.

On Thursday, the leader of the Dutch opposition Labor Party stepped down because he was minister of social affairs in a governing coalition led by Rutte when the country’s tax office was running a tough policy of tracking down fraud with child welfare.

Lodewijk Asscher’s decision put further pressure on Rutte ahead of Friday’s Cabinet meeting at which ministers were to decide on their reaction to a scathing report issued last month, and titled “Unprecedented Injustice,” that said the tax office policies violated “fundamental principles of the rule of law.” The report also criticized the government for the way it provided information to parliament about the scandal.

Many wrongfully accused parents were plunged into debt when tax officials demanded repayment of payments. The government has in the past apologized for the tax office’s methods and in March earmarked 500 million euros ($607 million) to compensate more than 20,000 parents.

Rutte plans to lead his conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy into the next election and polls suggest it will win the most seats. That would put Rutte, who has been in office for a decade at the head of three different coalitions, first in line to attempt to form the next ruling coalition.

Coalition parties met separately Thursday night ahead of Friday’s Cabinet meeting. The leader of the D66 party, Sigrid Kaag, told RTL News after the meeting that her party discussed “taking political responsibility” for the scandal.

“It is about accountability and responsibility in the corona crisis but also for the injustice,” she said.

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