Pro-Europe Dutch politician Kaag books gains in election

FILE PHOTO: Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2019Ê(GES 2019)

By Toby Sterling

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Former diplomat Sigrid Kaag, who heads the largest left-leaning party in the Netherlands, booked major gains at a national election after campaigning on a cosmopolitan pro-Europe platform that stands in contrast with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's euroscepticism.

Though Rutte's conservative VVD Party attracted the most votes according to the first exit poll, Kaag's D-66 party finished second and gained eight seats in the 150 member parliament, more than any other party, helped by her strong performance in debates.

The result sets D-66 up to become the VVD's main partner in a new coalition, from the third place it holds currently, and will make Kaag the most influential woman in Dutch politics to date.

At the final election debate on Tuesday night, she defended the European Union and euro currency as crucial to Dutch interests, a contrast with Rutte's ambivalent approach that made him reluctant to contribute to the EU's coronavirus crisis fund.

As a small country "we can have more sway by being a leader, making choices within the economy, with international trade agreements, and at the geo-political level, if we do it with others," Kaag said.

An Arabic-speaking former diplomat, she is the rare example of a Dutch politician known better abroad than at home.

She served as United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon in 2015-2017, and before that headed a U.N. team overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. She entered politics in 2017 in her current job as the Netherlands' Foreign Trade Minister.

When she was proposed as a member of Rutte's Cabinet, the Likud party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly opposed her nomination, arguing that she favoured Palestinian causes. She is married to a Palestinian.

Now 59, she was viewed in opinion polls as the second-most credible prime minister candidate among current party leaders after Rutte.

Kaag's party favours more taxation and spending, with education and renewable energy among top priorities. Her influence will depend on coalition talks that will commence within days of the March 15-17 elections, which were spread out over three days due to the coronavirus pandemic.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Marguerita Choy)