UPDATED: The embattled incumbent president of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) survived an historic election aimed at ousting him on Saturday. Olemic Thommessen can hardly call it a victory, though, after facing heavy opposition that doesn’t bode well for Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative government.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that it’s been 44 years since so many Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against the government’s presidential choice. It’s traditional for the party leading an incoming government to nominate one of their own for the position of Stortingspresident, which constitutionally ranks as second only to the monarch. It’s a ceremonial role in some ways with the prime minister wielding political power, but the president of the parliament is considered the country’s deputy head of state.
It’s also traditional for all MPs to accept the government’s choice and vote in favour of him or her. The presidential candidate usually has no opposing candidate. Thommessen, however, has been subject to such strong criticism on a number of fronts during his last four-year term that he was simply unpopular. He narrowly avoided a vote of lack of confidence in June and many thought Solberg would replace him herself before Parliament opens for its next four-year session on Monday. Others thought Thommessen would, or even should, resign.
He didn’t, telling newspaper Aftenposten recently that he would make himself available for whatever role the Conservatives thought best for him. After some internal quarrelling, the Conservatives’ parliamentary leader Trond Helleland announced on Thursday that Thommessen remained the government’s candidate.
That surprised many, since both the opposition Center and Socialist Left parties had already publicly stated they would not support Thommessen. Then Labour fronted its own candidate to oppose Thommessen. Curiously, though, Labour didn’t put forward its veteran MP Martin Kolberg, who’d led speculation over who might challenge Thommessen, but rather a relatively unknown MP, Eva Kristin Hansen. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) later reported that Kolberg’s poor command of English seems to have cost him the president’s job. The post requires lots of contact with foreign politicians and representation of Norway abroad. Kolberg is one of Norway’s few top politicians with no higher education and he has been known to require interpreters when traveling overseas.
Voting for the president’s post on Saturday, necessary ahead of Parliament’s formal opening on Monday, left Thommessen surviving by a slim margin: 80 MPs voted for Labour’s rival candidate Hansen and three MPs submitting blank ballots to indicate they didn’t support either Hansen or Thommessen. Only 86 MPs voted for Thommessen.
The narrow vote was clearly a result of all the controversy around him that began in 2014 over a private conflict that involved gaining access to a trust in the tax haven of Guernsey. Thommessen went on to endure everything from jokes over the national costume he wears on formal occasions to his role in a major parliamentary building scandal that expanded dramatically and has caused huge budget overruns. Thommessen has also been criticized over his office expenses and, not least, for failing to follow the Parliament’s intentions regarding an evaluation of how Norway’s military intelligence operations are monitored.
Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) was among those contending that Solberg made her first big mistake in allowing Thommessen to remain in his position as she forms another minority government. “She’s weakening the Parliament’s reputation when someone who’s been criticized so strongly can simply sail on in the same position as if everything was in the best of order,” Alstadheim wrote in DN on Friday. Other newspapers had called for replacing him.
The position carries a salary in line with the prime minister’s (around NOK 1.5 million) plus a chauffuer-driven car. Thommessen has also traveled around the world during the past four years representing Norway. Now he can continue to do so, but knowing full well that he lacks support and respect from nearly half the Parliament.
Thommessen himself has claimed he’s been “humbled” by all the criticism, and he continues to defend himself and his decisions. He admitted to NRK that he was nervous about whether he’d keep his job, “but I hoped it would go well.” Hansen of Labour was later elected to become 1st Vice President of the Parliament, with Morten Wold of the Progess Party as second vice president. MPs Magne Rommetveit of Labour, Nils Bjørke of the Center Party and Abid Raja ov the Liberals were named as remaining vice presidents.