Norway’s Parliament (Stortinget) was set to formally open amidst traditional pomp and circumstance on Monday, but also amidst much political drama. It’s the first time in decades that the President of the Parliament lacks traditional bipartisan support, and that’s also led to strong criticism of Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
“It’s a bad start for Stortinget (the Parliament),” the leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), Audun Lysbakken, told newspaper Aftenposten on Sunday. He was echoing complaints from Labour Party leder Jonas Gahr Støre, who noted that Solberg, her Conservative Party and their non-socialist support parties “chose to ignore” concerns over the track record of the Parliament’s incumbent president, Olemic Thommessen, one of the Conservatives’ top politicians.
“That was an expression of power-hungry arrogance from the Conservatives,” Lysbakken claimed. Støre was more forgiving after Solberg’s vulnerable majority in Parliament managed to force through their re-nomination of the much-criticized Thommessen, who had opted not to resign voluntarily. “Now the election (of Thommessen) has been decided,” Støre said. “Labour will back the president and the office of the president.”
Solberg distanced herself from all the drama surrounding the historic opposition to Thommessen’s election on Saturday, choosing to let the leader of the Conservatives’ delegation in Parliament, Trond Helleland, handle the fallout. Helleland said that Lysbakken’s criticism marked the first time he’d been accused of “power-hungry arrogance” in his political career.
“I’m relieved this is over,” Helleland said after Saturday’s tense election ended with 86 Members of Parliament (MPs) voting in favour of Thommessen, 80 voting for the last-minute opposition candidate put forward by Labour and three ballots being turned in blank, meaning three MPs didn’t support either candidate. That also means that two MPs from non-socialistic parties broke with party line and let their lack of confidence in Thommessen be known.
“Thommessen is fully aware that the Parliament’s eyes will be following the president’s office now,” Helleland conceded. Aftenposten reported that another Conservative MP who had openly criticized the president’s office himself, Michael Tetzschner, was excused from appearing in the Parliament on Saturday and therefore avoided having to comment on his uncomfortable choice between party loyalty and his own principles.
Thommessen himself weathered the storm and claimed that he didn’t think he was personally under attack. All the criticism, he claimed, emerged from the “difficult issues” that had come up during his first four-year term that began in 2013 when the Conservatives first won government power. “This is all about roles big and small, and difficult issues,” he told Aftenposten. “Now I’m looking forward to working for all the representatives in the house no matter how they voted.”
He added that he hoped he’ll be “a good representative for everyone, and I have the impression that I have a good starting point.” While others disagree, Thommessen will be once again be the one leading the highly ceremonial opening of Parliament on Monday, with King Harald V, Queen Sonja and Crown Prince Haakon and foreign ambassadors to Norway in attendance. Debate will start immediately over the government’s program for the upcoming year. Solberg and Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party will present their proposal for next year’s state budget on Thursday. And then the challenges for Solberg and her minority government will really begin.