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RPT-UPDATE 1-Eurogroup chair may stay for months after Dutch vote loss

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By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS, March 20 (Reuters) - Euro zone finance ministers will discuss over the coming months whether Jeroen Dijsselbloem can complete his term as their chairman after his party lost heavily at the Dutch elections, putting in doubt its participation in the next government.

Dijsselbloem, whose term as eurogroup chairman ends in January, is highly regarded by the other 18 euro zone finance ministers and by the European Union institutions. But his Labour party suffered heavy losses in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands last week. Dijsselbloem said chances that his party will remain in the government of liberal Mark Rutte after talks on the coalition were "extremely slim".

He said that this would mean that he will not maintain his post as Dutch finance minister, but left his chances open on whether he will be able to stay on as eurogroup chairman, at least until the end of his mandate in January.

"My mandate runs until January. The formation of a new coalition government in the Netherlands may take some months. Whether there is a gap between the arrival of a new minister and the end of my mandate is too early to say," Dijsselbloem said, hinting at the possibility that coalition talks may last until next year.

Other finance ministers, including German Wolfgang Schaeuble, praised the work of Dijsselbloem as head of the eurogroup, but fell short of saying whether he will stay until the end of his mandate.

Spanish Finance Minister Luis De Guindos, who competed with Dijsselbloem for the eurogroup chair in 2015, said he was not a candidate to replace the Dutchman. But he said rules on the eurogroup chairmanship were too "vague".

The head of the powerful informal group, which steers key negotiations such as on the Greek bailout and national budgets, has always been a sitting finance or economic minister.

The rules state that a candidate for the chair must be a finance or economic minister but there is no clarification on what happens if a sitting chair is no longer holding that office in his own country.

"I am going to talk to my colleagues one by one to hear how they see this new situation and how they see the future of the presidency of the eurogroup," Dijsselbloem said.

In the longer term, there is talk of establishing a full-time eurogroup presidency with its own staff, but that is not yet agreed.

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Philip Blenkinsop and Tom Koerkemeier; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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