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Dutch coalition talks in crisis as key party pulls out

The move is a major setback for Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders (Ramon van Flymen)
The move is a major setback for Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders (Ramon van Flymen)

Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders's hopes of forming a majority government were in tatters on Tuesday as a key negotiating party abruptly withdrew over a row about public finances.

The New Social Contract (NSC) of anti-corruption champion Pieter Omtzigt announced it was "finished" with this round of coalition talks, making it impossible as it stands for Wilders to hold a majority.

The NSC said it would remain "constructive" in talks over forming a government but appeared to rule out serving in a majority cabinet with Wilders.

"It could be a constructive support for a minority cabinet for example," said the NSC in a letter.

Wilders stunned the Netherlands and Europe by storming to victory in November's election with an anti-Islam, climate-change-denying manifesto that would ban mosques and the Koran.

But elections in the fragmented Dutch system usually usher in months of haggling over a coalition government.

Wilders has opened talks with three other parties but without the NSC and its 20 seats in the 150-seat parliament, he has no chance of forming a majority cabinet.

The far-right leader has already clashed with Omtzigt over parts of the Wilders manifesto seen as anti-constitutional, like its anti-Islam elements but also plans for a "Nexit", or a Dutch exit from the EU.

"Incredibly disappointing," Wilders wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"The Netherlands wants this cabinet and now Pieter Omtzigt is throwing in the towel while we were still in talks until today. I don't get it at all," he added.

- 'A bit surprised' -

Ronald Plasterk, the official charged with overseeing the horse-trading, must report to parliament by next Monday at the latest on progress in the talks.

He said he was "a bit surprised" by the sudden move, according to local news agency ANP, adding that he had found out via his WhatsApp.

His office had released an email to reporters saying that all four parties would be around the table again on Wednesday -- which is now unlikely to happen.

Already the omens had not been positive heading into Monday's deadline for Plasterk to release his much-awaited report.

Before Tuesday's shock announcement, the four party leaders had agreed to keep silent on the talks, meaning commentators and journalists had to rely on a stream of messages from Wilders on X.

"We have a serious problem," he warned after one possible coalition partner voted through a controversial immigration measure in the upper house, posting "MY GOD" in capitals after the news broke.

He then lashed out at Dilan Yesilgoz, leader of the centre-right liberal VVD, calling her "sour" after she appeared to take aim at him in a speech to her party.

The Netherlands reportedly needs to find some 17 billion euros in spending cuts but Wilders has instead vowed tax cuts and no major reductions in spending, infuriating the fiscally prudent Omtzigt.

"Under no circumstances does the NSC want to make promises to Dutch people, which it knows in advance are empty promises that cannot be kept during the coming cabinet period," said the letter.

Yesilgoz also voiced shock at the abrupt move, writing on X: "I am very surprised. We were having constructive talks, even today."

"I hope that we can quickly come round the table and hear precisely what is going on."

The final member of the negotiating foursome, Caroline van der Plas from the BBB farmers party, said it was "astonishing", also saying that talks had been positive until then.

The Dutch are used to politicians taking their time to form a government -- the last one took 271 days -- and Mark Rutte will remain prime minister until a deal is clinched.

But Wilders also raised eyebrows by dangling the possibility of new elections if the talks founder.

The latest polling suggests support for Wilders's PVV is soaring, with one showing a staggering 50 seats out of 150 for the far-right party.

ric/bc