NEWS ANALYSIS: The past few week’s political storm over errant government minister Per Sandberg was supposed to die down on Tuesday, but was leaving lots of damage in its wake. Opposition politicians are milking it for all its worth, as they seem to seek new ways to topple Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative government coalition.
Solberg was attempting to ride out the storm once again, retaining her characteristic calm while firmly stating that her fisheries minister Sandberg, who resigned on Monday, made mistakes and had “not shown full understanding” of security procedures. It would have been refreshing if either she or Sandberg, who has prided himself on “speaking straight from the gut,” had simply acknowledged at their joint press conference following his resignation that he simply messed up. In essence, that’s what they admitted to. They both agreed that he needed to resign, to end the uproar around him and allow the government to move forward.
Political opponents and critical commentators, however, don’t seem keen to allow that just yet. It was no surprise that opposition politicians from the Labour, Socialist Left, Center, Greens and Reds parties all claimed they weren’t satisfied with Sandberg’s resignation alone, and don’t think Solberg has been taking security issues seriously enough. Solberg has reason to worry, however, that also the centrist Christian Democrats party, which formally supported her coalition government during its first term in power, still has questions as well. The Christian Democrats hold the swing vote in Parliament to form a majority on any problematic issue, and Solberg needs them to avoid any votes implying a lack of confidence in her government made up the Conservative, Progress and Liberal parties..
‘Important, unanswered questions’
“I believe there are still important, unanswered questions,” Hans Fredrik Grøvan, who serves as the Christian Democrats’ representative on the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. He wants more information straight from Solberg herself regarding how Sandberg’s trip not only to Iran but also to China last spring may have created a security risk for Norway.
The risk stems from Sandberg’s decision to take his government-issued telephone (which contained the minister’s email, text messages, contact list and the ministry’s system for handling various political issues) with him to China in May, in defiance of the government’s own security procedures. He kept using the same phone after he returned to Norway and then he took it to Iran as well. Norway has no security cooperation with either country, both of which also are known for having eager and pervasive intelligence gathering agencies.
In a worst-case scenario for the Norwegian government, Chinese intelligence agents could have gained access to Sandberg’s phone for two full months, from the end of May when he left China until he was ordered to turn it in upon his return from Iran, so that Norway’s own intelligence agency PST examine it for any signs of being comprised. No information has been released as to whether PST has found any signs of hacking. Solberg, meanwhile, needs to hope they don’t.
The Sandberg saga can be boiled down, noted commentator Harald Stanghelle in newspaper Aftenposten, to being the story of a newly separated government minister who fell in love with a much-younger former Iranian asylum-seeker who, because of a bitter conflict with his ex-wife, chose to put the government’s security rules aside. It’s much more than that, wrote Stanghelle, causing problems not just for Solberg but also for his own conservative Progress Party. Sandberg was deputy leader of the party, representing its most right-wing side but also helping to build bridges between Progress’ most immigration- and Islam-critical faction and its more moderate members. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen now faces having to replace Sandberg, who also resigned his party post, and speculation is strong that the party’s controversial Sylvi Listhaug will ultimately be tapped, if only to placate the party’s often noisy grass-roots constituency.
Sandberg’s outburst at the press conference that Solberg is “the most fantastic person I’ve ever met” indicates he’s grateful to both Solberg and Jensen for apparently backing him until his mistakes proved to be too much for the government to accept. They were both catching criticism over that, too, with some opposition politicians claiming Solberg hadn’t been tough enough with Sandberg and showed weak leadership.
All this can come back to haunt Solberg, who already faces a parliamentary hearing over her government’s alleged failure to improve preparedness against terror, and was likely to figure into this week’s first party leader debate that launches the autumn political season. Solberg could expect tough questions and challenges to her authority, not least from Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. Støre has already claimed that “Erna has had poor control over her minister,” while Vedum questioned whether Solberg’s ministers and state secretaries are sufficiently conscious of the importance of their roles and the need to follow rules.
Both Støre and Vedum had best be careful, though, given their huge and embarrassing problems with their own party’s top politicians and former ministers. Støre’s entire winter was arguably spoiled by the sexual harassment charges filed against one of Labour’s own deputy leaders, Trond Giske, while Vedum had to fend off an obscene and sexually harassing comment sent to former Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete by one of the party’s top male politicians during a weekend party. Among the politicians present was former Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe.
The Christian Democrats are left to decide whether Solberg will be punished over the Sandberg affair in Parliament. Sandberg, meanwhile, made it clear he wasn’t leaving the public arena entirely, telling reporters on Monday that “there are many of you who have followed me for many years. Neither you nor any others are finished with Per Sandberg.” He and his new Iranian-born partner were due to hold a press conference of their own on Tuesday afternoon.