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Dutch government weighs possible resignation even as it battles surging pandemic

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Cabinet is considering collectively resigning over a report that blamed the government for mismanagement of childcare subsidies that drove thousands of families to financial ruin.

FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrives to attend a face-to-face EU summit amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in Brussels, Belgium December 10, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool

A parliamentary inquiry last month concluded that “unprecedented injustice” had been done to innocent families, who were often forced to repay tens of thousands of euros of granted subsidies, leading to unemployment, bankruptcy or divorce.

Rutte, in office since 2010, said late last month that the affair, spanning almost the entire past decade, was “shameful”. Compensation of at least 30,000 euros ($36,500) is being paid to roughly 10,000 families.

The families this week filed charges against five politicians, including Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra and Economy Minister Eric Wiebes, for their role in the mismanagement.

Opinion polls show Rutte’s government has the approval of two-thirds of the public. But political analysts said pressure on the government to resign grew after Lodewijk Asscher stepped down as head of the opposition Labour party and said he would not contest the March 17 parliamentary election as he felt he was partly to blame for the scandal.

Asscher, who was social affairs minister when his party was a coalition partner in a previous Rutte government, “not only puts more pressure on the cabinet, but also on individual party leaders,” political pundit Tom-Jan Meeus wrote on Twitter.

Rutte called crisis talks with his entire Cabinet for Friday.

The subsidy scandal saw the tax office ruthlessly enforce repayments of subsidies, without giving families opportunity to show their innocence, the parliamentary committee found.

Political analyst Sophie van Leeuwen said the scandal was unlikely to hit Rutte in the election just two months away, given his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Voters don’t really care about the subsidies scandal because it is far removed for most of them. Rutte has high approval rates because he is good in the role of statesman guiding the Netherlands through the worst crisis since World War Two,” she told Reuters.

Responding to questions about his possible resignation, Rutte said on Tuesday his Cabinet would remain fully capable of managing COVID-19, even if forced into caretaker status. The country is in the middle of the toughest lockdown of the pandemic and Rutte is considering stricter curbs.

($1 = 0.8223 euros)

Reporting by Bart Meijer; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Frances Kerry