THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS - Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte fought for his political life Thursday in a bitter parliamentary debate about the country's derailed process of forming a new ruling coalition following an election last month.
Rutte's conservative party, known by its Dutch acronym VVD, won the most seats in parliament in the vote, putting him in line to form his fourth governing coalition and possibly become the country's longest-serving prime minister.
That looked a long way off Thursday as lawmakers accused him of trying to sideline a popular lawmaker, a charge that Rutte denies.
Negotiations halted a week ago after one of the two officials leading the coalition talks tested positive for COVID-19 and was photographed carrying notes laying out details of the talks.
Among the text was a line saying: "Position Omtzigt, function elsewhere." That was a reference to lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt of the Christian Democrat Appeal party, who, with his tough questions, has long been a thorn in the side of the government.
After the note was photographed, Rutte told reporters last week that he had not discussed Omtzigt in his coalition talks. But according to notes made by civil servants that were published Thursday, Rutte did talk about the lawmaker.
Rutte told the ensuing debate that he did not remember that part of the discussion and had answered reporters' questions "in good conscience."
"I am not standing here lying. I am telling the truth," Rutte said.
One of the officials who led the coalition talks, caretaker Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren, also told lawmakers that she did not recall discussing Omtzigt with Rutte, saying that it was the first of 17 separate discussions with party leaders.
"We didn't speak with anybody, with none of the party leaders about a function elsewhere for Mr. Omtzigt," she said as the hourslong debate extended deep into the night.
The debate around the coalition talks and Rutte's leadership comes as the Netherlands is battling rising coronavirus infections despite a monthslong lockdown. Rutte's popularity soared last year as he was seen as a steady hand steering the Netherlands through the coronavirus crisis, but it ebbed as the March election approached.
Opposition lawmaker Geert Wilders demanded that Rutte step down immediately and called for a motion of no confidence.
"Don't you realize that your time is up?" Wilders said.
Omtzigt was not present for the debate between party leaders. He is taking time off, after complaining of exhaustion.
Sigrid Kaag, leader of the centrist D66 party, which finished second in the election, said she had seen a "pattern of forgetfulness, amnesia" from Rutte over his more than a decade in office.
"How can you, in the greatest crisis that we face in the Netherlands, restore the trust that has again been damaged?" Kaag asked.