In setback, Wilders’ first post-election appointee quits

By Toby Sterling

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -The person named by Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders as a “scout” to look into viable governing coalitions after elections in which his party won the most seats abruptly resigned on Monday.

The swift departure of Gom van Strien, appointed on Friday, underlines the difficulties ahead for coalition talks as Wilders seeks to form a government with himself as prime minister.

Van Strien, a senator for Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), said in a statement his position had become untenable after reports emerged over the weekend that he was fighting a fraud charge. He denies wrongdoing.

“I believe in his innocence, if he says it, but it’s not an option that he go through the whole ‘scouting’ (process) … reacting to or disputing this publicity,” Wilders said, adding that he hoped to announce a replacement on Tuesday.

Wilders’ PVV booked major gains in the Nov. 22 election. But with just 24% of the vote, it needs support from at least two more moderate parties in order to form a government.

Early omens have been poor, with the largest conservative party — the VVD Party of outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte — on Friday ruling out serving in a Wilders-led Cabinet, though it said it could consider offering outside support.

Van Strien had been due to meet with VVD leader Dilan Yesilgoz on Monday.

Pieter Omtzigt, who leads the centre-right NSC Party and is seen as a likely partner in a Wilders’ government, has said cooperation would be difficult due to extreme positions Wilders has voiced that violate Dutch constitutional protections on freedom of religion.

In posts on social media platform X over the weekend, Wilders blasted other parties for not wanting to work with him and vowed that eventually, “I will be prime minister of this beautiful country.”

Dutch coalition talks usually take months, and positions about parties’ willingness to work with each other can shift with time. If Wilders fails to form a cabinet, centre-right combinations that exclude him are also possible, with fresh elections as a last resort.

Few PVV and NSC politicians have undergone the same amount of vetting or have much executive experience after a decade in which the VVD has led governments under caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Rutte weighed in briefly during a book presentation in Belgium, saying Yesilgoz was steering a “very prudent course” by declining to join a Wilders cabinet and adding that he felt responsible for VVD losses in the election.

Newspaper NRC Handelsblad first reported on Saturday that Van Strien was sued in March by a subsidiary of Utrecht University over alleged fraud. Van Strien “strongly” rejected the allegations in a statement on Sunday.

(Reporting by Toby SterlingEditing by Peter Graff and Bernadette Baum)