Dutch Labor Party leader steps down over welfare scandal

Dutch Labor Party Leader Steps Down Over Welfare Scandal
Peter Dejong

FILE- In this March 5, 2017, file photo, Labour Party leader Lodewijk Asscher, center, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, and firebrand anti Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, left, shake hands during a visit to De Telegraaf newspaper where six leaders of political parties made a special election edition of the newspaper in Amsterdam. The leader of the Dutch opposition Labour Party said Thursday he will not lead the party into elections in March 2021 and will not stand for re-election, becoming a high-profile victim of a scandal involving child benefit fraud investigations.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The leader of the Dutch opposition Labor Party said Thursday he will not lead the party into the Netherlands’ March election and will not run for reelection following a scandal involving child benefit fraud investigations.

Lodewijk Asscher was minister for social affairs and a vice-prime minister in a governing coalition led by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte when the country’s tax office wrongly labeled thousands of parents as fraudsters.

Asscher said he was standing down despite not having direct knowledge of the tax office’s actions.

“Yes, I was minister of social affairs,” he said in a video message. “No, I did not know that the tax office had launched an unlawful hunt for thousands of families.”

His decision puts further pressure on Rutte ahead of a Cabinet meeting Friday at which ministers will decide on their reaction to a scathing report issued last month that said the tax office policy aimed at rooting out fraud had violated “fundamental principles of the rule of law.”

Many of the wrongfully accused parents were plunged into debt when tax officials demanded repayment of child welfare 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.

Another opposition leader already has said he plans a motion of no-confidence in Rutte’s government at a debate on the report’s findings that is expected next week. There is speculation in the Netherlands that Rutte’s government could resign Friday, taking political responsibility for the scandal.

It is not clear what impact the prime minister’s resignation would have on the Netherlands and its struggle to rein in the coronavirus.

A general election is scheduled for March 17, with Rutte planning to run again and opinion polls suggesting his conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy will win the most seats. That would put Rutte, who has been in office for a decade, first in line to attempt to form the next ruling coalition.

In a tweet, Rutte paid tribute to Asscher’s “great commitment to our country and our cooperation over the years.”