NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg could rightly point out this week that her conservative government coalition with the Progress Party has delivered on as much as 75 percent of their campaign promises in 2013. Re-election in September is nonetheless far from guaranteed, since the effects of their reforms aren’t yet being felt and Solberg must constantly remind voters about how she’s guided the country through three major challenges.
“I hope you’ve noticed that things are going well in the country now,” Solberg told reporters during the prime minister’s annual pre-summer “state of the nation” press conference on Tuesday. She wasn’t referring only to the arrival of Norwegian strawberries in the markets and the success of her hometown football club, Brann of Bergen.
As newspaper Aftenposten noted, Solberg’s first term as prime minister was marred early by a collapse in the price of the oil that fuels Norway’s economy, by a refugee crisis that brought more than 30,000 asylum seekers to Norway in the space of a few months and by a newly aggressive Russian neighbour to the east that can seem as unpredictable as the new US president in the west.
Solberg’s government, however, responded in ways that lately have seen unemployment decline after it shot up because of the oil price dive. The flood of refugees has slowed to a trickle and defense forces are being historically beefed up to keep Russia at bay. Norway’s economy is also recovering and business optimism is rising once again.
At the same time, Aftenposten could confirm prior to Solberg’s session of expected boasting on Tuesday that her government has largely followed through on its campaign promises. While Solberg herself contends the rate is even higher, Aftenposten reported that more than half (18 out of 30) of the Conservatives’ and Progress parties’ major promises have been kept and implemented, while five more have been partially kept. Solberg’s government failed to win support in Parliament for measures that would let grocery stores and other retailers open for business on Sundays, for example, and they failed to reform and deregulate farming to the degree they’d hoped, but they quickly did away with inheritance tax and launched reforms of Norway’s local government structure, the police and other public services that have caught criticism but are cranking in.
It’s those reforms, however, that will take time to come into place and have any effect. Voters are left to rely on Solberg’s fervent belief that they will sustain Norway’s welfare state, modernize society and carry the country into the future. Her government is also under constant attack by the opposition Labour and Center parties, which already are teaming up in an effort to defeat the Conservatives and Progress parties at the polls in September.
The looming election made the prime minister’s annual summer party with the media more important and significant than usual. It was Solberg’s last chance, in her official role, to present her track record and tackle her opposition from a position of authority. Some of her attempts, though, were overshadowed by another rash of criticism recently over her government’s controversial insistence on keeping secret the State Auditor General’s recent assessment of national security and preparedness. It reveals serious deficiencies in the government’s work to secure critical infrastructure and important buildings, and commentators and even politicians from her own party have since called her withholding of the auditor’s report a “shame.” Solberg fended them off as well.
“I think the critics are wrong,” Solberg told reporters. “I think our security laws contain their evaluations to take care of Norwegian security. In this case, it’s the defense department that owns the information and they contend it has to do with our security. And all the criticism (of Norway’s national preparedness for a terrorist attack, for example) is known, it’s contained in a summary that’s been available all along.” Solberg also admitted that both her government and those before hers have not done good enough jobs at addressing security and preparedness in a society that’s always been open and with a relatively low crime rate.
“We have admitted that we’ve been too poor at addressing security,” Solberg said, “but we’ve done a lot now. I think we’ve come a long way.”
While many Norwegians will now start taking off for summer holidays (most have five weeks of paid vacation a year), Solberg is heading straight into the election campaign. Her summer won’t be filled with strawberries and football matches as she fights to keep her job.