Embattled Erna keen to hang on

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s been 200 years since Norway received its first prime minister, albeit as part of its unhappy union with Sweden at the time. While Peder Anker was simply appointed on November 18, 1814 by Swedish Crown Prince Carl Johan, his current counterpart Erna Solberg must struggle to retain voter support during the most difficult state budget negotiations in several years. The future of her conservative minority government coalition is hanging in the balance.

Norway's first prime minister, wealthy landowner Peder Anker, didn't have to worry about voters too much when he was appointed by Sweden's crown prince 200 years ago, on November 18, 2014.

Norway’s first prime minister, wealthy landowner Peder Anker, didn’t have to worry about voters too much when he was appointed by Sweden’s crown prince 200 years ago, on November 18, 1814. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Solberg was spending the day in Ukraine, after first visiting Poland on Monday. Her goal is to show Norwegian support for Norway’s hard-pressed Polish and Ukrainian allies in the face of Russian aggression, but she’s keeping close tabs on the tough budget negotiations going on in Oslo as well.

“I have good contact with them back home, and we have had good conversations about both our strategy and what we’re negotiating over,” Solberg insisted to Norwegian reporters following her delegation to Warsaw and Kiev. Despite sounding like she had a heavy cold, Solberg tried as usual to present a calm, almost motherly, tone that also was both upbeat and positive.

The debate over her government’s first state budget has been anything but, and her Conservative Party has been sliding in recent public opinion polls while her coalition partner, The Progress Party, has taken a serious dive. The public has clearly latched on to the intense criticism of the budget hurled out by the opposition parties in Parliament and the government’s two so-called support parties, which have  been among the most vociferous. They claim that Solberg’s campaign slogan of Mennesker, ikke milliarder (People, not billions) falls flat in the face of a budget that offers billions of kroner in tax relief to some of Norway’s wealthiest citizens, while cutting support to various groups of people who are less well off. The budget presented on October 8 by Solberg and Finance Minister Siv Jensen has been called “anti-social,” blasted for failing to put a priority on climate and environmental issues, and worse.

Anker's modern-day counterpart, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, was under a lot of pressure on November 18, 2014, to win back voter support and keep her government coalition together. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Anker’s modern-day counterpart, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, was under a lot of pressure on November 18, 2014, to win back voter support and keep her government coalition together. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

There’s no question it’s been a challenging autumn for Solberg, just a year after taking power. In addition to the budget drama, her government isn’t getting the support expected from the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party and their agreement from last autumn seems fragile indeed. They disagree on asylum, foreign aid, tax, environmental and anti-protectionism issues, many of which are causing trouble in the budget talks. Her government partner, the Progress Party, also faces internal dissension from party members who feel they’re “losing their soul” by making too many compromises on core party issues for the sake of government position and unity.

Solberg, however, continues to fend off all the criticism. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that she blames her government’s waning support in public opinion polls on voters’ lack of preparedness for the changes that she thinks must be made to preserve Norway’s welfare system. The public simply wasn’t ready, Solberg believes, for “some of the changes we’ve proposed, which we believe are necessary. Folks want security in the short term, but that can lead to a lot of insecurity in the future.” She said her government can’t avoid making, or at least proposing, some difficult changes.

“Continuing as we have been in recent years is the same as failing to recognize that Norway faces lots of change in the future that we must be prepared for,” Solberg said. That’s why it’s important to cut Norway’s annual tax on net worth (formueskatt), even though that’s led to cries of protest that the tax cuts will only benefit the wealthy. Not so, claims Solberg, noting how especially family-owned businesses would be better off investing the money in their companies and creating more jobs instead of having to spend it on taxes.

“As long as people are only concerned with sharing Norway’s wealth (at present) and not looking at the future and its developments, there are many who believe the wealthy shouldn’t get tax relief,” Solberg acknowledged. “But it’s not the wealthy who will get relief, it’s the future. The goal is to create an investment climate for small- and medium-sized companies that make sure we actually have the workplaces we need for our children.”

Solberg also needed, meanwhile, to spend time Monday and Tuesday concentrating on her Polish and Ukrainian hosts, who need all the support they can get as well. Poland and Norway together agreed to continue helping Ukraine in efforts to stabilize the country and, thus, the entire region.

“Both Norway and Poland are members of NATO and both share borders with Russia,” Solberg said after her meeting with her Polish counterpart Ewa Kopaczi in Warsaw. “It’s important for us to share experiences in the difficult situation we’re now in.” Solberg also was offering more financial aid to Ukraine as she headed for Kiev on Tuesday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund