Government huddles for crisis meeting

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s conservative minority government seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse, given the ongoing discontent among the four parties behind it. Now all four party leaders reportedly plan to huddle next week for a not-so-secret “crisis meeting” in an effort to smooth badly ruffled feathers.

The new government headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg (at right) posed for one its first official portraits, with fewer ministers around Solberg's table. State secretaries are sitting in the background. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

The government headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg (at right) of the Conservatives and Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party suddenly seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

At issue, first and foremost, is the major clash last week between the leader of the Christian Democrats, one of the government’s two support parties, and the deputy leader of the Progress Party, which currently shares government power in a two-party coalition with the Conservatives. The Christian Democrats’ Knut Arild Hareide has publicly accepted an apology for offensive remarks made by the regularly outspoken Per Sandberg of the Progress Party, but the tension has not eased. Despite their best efforts, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives and Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party can’t seem to put the clash behind them and move forward.

Solberg has tried hard this week to portray the government as unified. “I think things are going well,” she told news bureau NTB. “Every day we see good cooperation among the four parties, both in the Parliament and among government ministers.” She conceded that “we shouldn’t have had the type of argument we had last week,” but claims that since Hareide has received an apology and accepted it, “we should be finished” with the conflict. She doesn’t think the ongoing debate over the conflict is constructive, and she doesn’t want to play what she called “the blame game.”

Non-socialist parties celebrated winning a collective majority, but they ultimately couldn't agree on forming a government.

Jensen and Solberg (from left) with their government support party leaders Knut Arild Hareide and Trine Skei Grande in happier times. PHOTO: Høyre

Jensen portrayed a similar, if more defensive, attitude in an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. She insisted that both she and Hareide are only interested in moving forward now: “The apology has been accepted and we have put this issue behind us,” she told DN.

The problem is that Sandberg’s shrieking last week, in which he blamed the Christian Democrats for the numbers of young Norwegian muslims who’ve joined terrorist organizations because of failed integration policies, doesn’t seem to be having any consequences for Sandberg himself. He admitted to being “unprofessional” and harming the political debate over immigration and integration and Jensen now seems to have let him off the hook. Commentators and even one of the Progress Party’s financial supporters, investor and businessman Christen Sveaas, believe Sandberg, however, is a loose canon who must be disarmed. Sveaas called Sandberg a tullball (literally, a ball of nonsense) and told DN that Hareide shouldn’t have allowed himself to get so worked up over Sandberg’s “odd and amusing” remarks. Political analyst Jan Arild Snoen told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that Sandberg either must learn to behave better or be replaced as one of the Progress Party’s leaders.

Sandberg surviving, so far
That seems unlikely, given Jensen’s remarks Wednesday in the DN interview. She called Sandberg “an important part of the leadership” of her party and of “the profile” of the party’s policies, which have challenged immigration for years. She said “Per’s role is important and it always has been. It happens now and then that words fall that shouldn’t have fallen. He has acknowledged that. Now we’re finished with that. Now we move on.”

Hareide, however, has expressed lingering concern over Sandberg’s role in the Progress Party’s strategy. He reportedly has now dropped any idea of joining the government and its agreement to support the government is hanging by a thread. Jensen refused to publicly acknowledge Hareide’s concern, which was also an issue among the leaders of the government parties’ youth organizations during their own debate on state broadcaster NRK Wednesday morning.  Top Christian Democrats’ members simply won’t put Sandberg’s remarks behind them, and have called on the party to reevaluate its support for the minority government coalition that helps keep it in power. Members and leaders of the government’s other support party, the Liberals, are considering the same, meaning the government could fall.

That’s why the four party leaders, reported TV2, plan to meet next week to hash out the biggest crisis that’s hit them since they assumed power after the 2013 election. The stakes are high, with municipal elections looming this fall and even Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang of the Conservatives reportedly worried that the government squabbling may cost him his job. Voter support has plummeted for both government parties, especially the Progress Party, and their candidates stand to lose badly at the local government level.

Asked whether she views the government as a winning team, Jensen told DN that “we at any rate should be better at being one. But this is about getting rid of the noise and putting more attention on political solutions.” She’s not willing to get rid of Sandberg, though, despite concern from within the party itself that he’s become more of a liability than a colourful and occasionally entertaining politician. He can cost the Progress Party its first-ever role in government, and topple Solberg’s government project, leaving Jensen to decide whether her party is better suited to being in opposition than position.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund