THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Mark Rutte assumed office Thursday as Dutch prime minister, pledging an era of austerity and tighter regulation of immigration but distancing himself from the anti-Islam philosophy of populist politician Geert Wilders, whose support is vital for the new minority government.
The alliance of Rutte's Liberal party, known as the VVD, and the Christian Democratic Appeal signaled a continuing shift to the right for a country that has long been known for its generous social welfare policies and which was once a favored destination of political refugees.
But the two parties cannot form a majority coalition and have turned to Wilders, an anti-Islam firebrand, to prop up the nation's first minority coalition since World War II.
Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims through his speeches and writings in recent years.
His support gives Rutte's government the slimmest-possible majority — one seat — in parliament's 150-seat lower house. In return, Rutte agreed to clamp down on immigration by tightening asylum procedures and making it harder for new immigrants to bring their families to the Netherlands. He also plans to pursue laws banning face-covering burqas and force immigrants to pay for their mandatory citizenship classes.
"It is absolutely necessary that we in the Netherlands tighten the immigration rules," Rutte told a news conference after Queen Beatrix swore in his Cabinet.
The new premier said the country "will always be open for asylum seekers who appeal fairly and honestly to Dutch hospitality ... (but) we can't go on allowing such large numbers of immigrants to come to the Netherlands."
While Rutte and Wilders agree on slashing immigration, they differ on Islam. Wilders calls Islam a "political ideology," while Rutte and the Christian Democrats recognize it as a religion.
"I am not concerned with Islam," Rutte said, adding that he and Wilders had agreed to disagree on the issue.
"That's the reason the PVV is not in the government," he said, referring to Wilders' Freedom Party by its Dutch acronym.
Rutte, the 43-year-old leader of the pro-market Liberals is the first prime minister from his party since 1918. He is a former human resources manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever.
He has been criticized for including only three women in his new Cabinet.
Wilders is arguably one of the most important people in Dutch politics today, but because the Freedom Party is not part of the coalition, he was not present at the Huis Ten Bosch Palace for the swearing in of the new administration, nor was he included in the traditional "family portrait" with the queen afterward.
Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager said he would make sure his Cabinet colleagues rein in spending during the government's four-year term — Rutte has pledged to slash euro18 billion ($25 billion) in government spending.
After the ceremony at the palace, Rutte returned to the parliamentary complex, where outgoing prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende handed him the keys to the small tower that serves as the premier's office in The Hague.