Meet the new Dutch prime minister: Mark who?

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Mark Rutte is set to become the first liberal prime minister of the Netherlands since 1918. But you'd be forgiven if you have never heard of him. Many people right here in the Netherlands have the same feeling.

Who is Mark Rutte? And how did he get to such a senior position?

Friendly and articulate
In my first encounter with Mark Rutte I got a feel for his qualities. On a hectic evening in the lobby outside parliament, it was my first day on the job. A colleague spotted Rutte, tapped him on the shoulder and pointing at me said "He's got a question for you".

Rutte grinned down at me, expectantly. And in two minutes, in perfect English, explained why his government should keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan.

In the three years since then, Mark Rutte has been accessible, friendly and articulate whenever I needed him for a story. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone - journalist, politician, civil servant or entrepreneur - who doesn't say the same thing about Mark Rutte.

Big family
He was born on Valentine's Day in 1967 in The Hague. He grew up in a middle class neighbourhood, and his family was comfortable but not well-off. His father was already 58 when Mark was born. Mark was the seventh child, although his eldest brothers and sisters were born to a different mother. Rutte senior's first wife died during World War II and he married for a second time - to his first wife's younger sister.

In interviews Rutte says his parents taught him humility - he stresses the down-to-earth values his background taught him, the importance of work, being humble and offering each other support.

Politics came early, with young Mark joining the youth organisation of the VVD, the free-market liberal party he now leads, when he was 16 years old.

Rutte is an accomplished pianist, and considered going to music conservatory. He chose instead to study history at Leiden University, where his far-ranging curiosity and intelligence started to catch people's attention.

After earning his Master's degree in 1992, he went to work for Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever. During a ten-year stint at the multinational food conglomerate, he served in various management functions.

But even while working in the private sector, politics was never far from his heart. He helped run the VVD as a member of the executive committee during the 1990s.

So it came as no surprise in 2004 when party colleague Gerrit Zalm, then finance minister, pulled Mark Rutte out of Unilever and into Jan Peter Balkenende's second cabinet, as deputy social affairs minister. He was moved to education after two years, in a cabinet reshuffle.

Just before that goverrnment  fell, Rutte was elected leader of the VVD. It was a close-run thing. Immigration minister Rita Verdonk also wanted the job, and had a much higher profile. She wanted to stir things up, while Rutte campaigned as a dependable, stable factor in a time of turbulence in the party.

There were questions about his leadership for a while, as the party hit rock bottom in opinion polls. Prominent members Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders left - but Rutte won the day, eventually kicking his one time rival Rita Verdonk out of the party.

Once considered on the left within the VVD, he has more recently turned to the right, emphasising reducing taxes and cutting government spending. He promotes a get-tough approach to crime and a restrictive immigration policy.

In 2009 his debating skills won him the accolade 'Politician of the Year' from his fellow MPs. Since then he has been on an upswing, culminating in June 2010 in a narrow election win - by one seat. The margin may have been slim but it was still the VVD's first national victory since the party was founded in 1948.

And now Mark Rutte's genial nature will be put to the ultimate test. He is going to lead the country's first minority cabinet - with parliamentary support from a controversial party, Geert Wilders' right-wing anti-Islam Freedom Party.

The country is divided and entering an era of smaller government, requiring sacrifice from all quarters. Rutte has had it tough in the past but the political storms ahead are sure to test him to the full. Whether he continues to be as open and friendly in the future as he was on my first day three years ago, remains to be seen.


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