Brende’s departure can boost coalition

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Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende’s surprise and looming resignation has spurred speculation over who Prime Minister Erna Solberg will choose to replace him. Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has emerged as the hottest candidate, but the vacancy can also help Solberg firm up her conservative government coalition for a second term and lead to structural changes within the foreign ministry.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende (left) is leaving the Norwegian government headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg (center). Speculation is swirling that Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (right) is the top candidate to replace Brende, unless Solberg tries to use the vacancy to get the Christian Democrats to join her government coalition. This photo was taken at a NATO summit in Warsaw. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Solberg announced Friday that Brende would be leaving her government after he was offered the chance to become president of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She asked him to stay on, though, for another month, to give her time to find his replacement.

Solberg also needs time to shore up her entire government coalition, which she hopes will expand to include all four of Norway’s non-socialist parties that collectively won a majority in last week parliamentary election. Newspapers Aftenposten and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) were among those reporting over the weekend that Solberg, who has been ruling in a minority coalition with the Progress Party, may use the vacancy to urge the Christian Democrats to join her team along with the Liberals.

Both the small Christian Democrats and Liberal parties are mulling over Solberg’s standing invitation. She’s keen to keep the Christian Democrats from joining the opposition in Parliament because they’ve said they don’t want to be part of a government with the highly conservative Progress Party. Now Solberg may entice Christian Democrats’ leader Knut Arild Hareide by offering him the foreign minister’s post, or by restoring a ministerial position within the foreign ministry to be in charge of Norway’s large foreign aid programs.

Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, may receive an offer from Prime Minister Erna Solberg that will be hard to refuse. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

It’s believed that the prospect of holding either the foreign minister’s post or a top foreign aid post (called bistandsminister in Norwegian) would be highly attractive to the Christian Democrats. Foreign aid is one of the core issues they champion, while the post of foreign minister is high-profile and could boost exposure for the small party that was disappointed by its own election results. “You’re quite visible as a foreign minister and most become popular,” one foreign ministry official told DN. “It’s a perfect starting point for building up a strong profile for the next election in 2021.”

There’s also a precedent for such a move, since former Christian Democrats leader Kjell Magne Bondevik was once foreign minister in a coalition government in the late 1980s. He went on to later become prime minister.

Another option would be for Solberg to appoint her party colleague Søreide, who’s headed the defense ministry for the past four years, and restore a ministerial post for foreign aid and offer it to Hareide or his party secretary, Hilde Frafjord Johnson. She held such a post in earlier governments and also has served as a high-ranking United Nations envoy, albeit to the ravaged country of South Sudan. Johnson was unable to stop the bloodbath there and has since returned to Norway.

‘No comment’
Søreide, meanwhile, is viewed as highly qualified for the foreign minister’s post, also  as a former head of the Parliament’s foreign relations committee. Her command of English, the language used most often in international diplomacy, is impressive, speaking almost without an accent. Foreign ministry insiders told DN she’s also popular among several of Norway’s most important allies. Her appointment would also allow Solberg’s Conservative Party to name Norway’s first foreign minister who’s a woman, which can further boost the party’s gender equality profile.

Søreide wouldn’t comment on the speculation surrounding her candidacy. Nikolai Astrup, a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives, told both DN and Aftenposten that the decision is up to Solberg, “but there’s no doubt that Ine (Søreide) is well-qualified.”

Solberg herself has made it clear she won’t comment on all the speculation that’s bound to swirl until Brende’s job is filled. “I have plenty of time to make a decision,” Solberg said at Friday’s press conference. She wouldn’t comment on the prospect of naming the first woman as foreign minister: “You can also speculate on that, but I won’t comment on anything that can indicate who (her new foreign minister) will be.”

The Christian Democrats themselves weren’t commenting either, with the party’s spokesperson claiming it was “irrelevant” and would not influence the party’s decision that still has them joining the opposition but vowing to support Solberg from outside her government.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund