NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg strode out of the Royal Palace in Oslo on Friday, to once again present three new ministers in her government. They’re all from her Conservative Party’s coalition partner, the Progress Party, with the ministerial changes expected to both renew and set off a power struggle among potential successors to Progress leader Siv Jensen.
As predicted on Thursday, Norway now has new government ministers in charge of transportation (Jon Georg Dale), oil and energy (Kjell-Børge Freiberg) and agriculture (Bård André Hoksrud). Dale (pronounced “Dah-lay”) is taking over the transport ministry from the popular and respected Ketil Solvik-Olsen, who’s resigning to spend a year with his family in the US, where his doctor wife was offered an attractive job at a children’s hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Freiberg takes over from Terje Søviknes, who also cited family reasons for what the divorced former oil minister claimed was a need to move home to Os outside Bergen for the sake of his two children, aged 11 and 14.
Hoksrud is taking over as agriculture minister for Dale, whose move to the transport ministry is widely viewed as a promotion for the 34-year-old bachelor. Dale just settled a conflict with farmers demanding more state aid on Thursday, and he’s won high marks from his political colleagues for showing leadership talent and generally being well-liked: “the kind of guy you’d like to spend time with at the pub,” one political commentator told state broadcaster NRK on Friday morning. Dale has been described as “pragmatic, liberal and keen on cooperation,” and he joins the list of heir-apparents to top Progress Party leadership.
Not just yet, though, with the attention-grabbing Sylvi Listhaug expected to take over as an acting deputy leader of the Progress Party during a party board meeting on Monday. Solberg wouldn’t say whether Listhaug, who was forced to resign as justice minister last spring after having to apologize for inappropriate and unjustified criticism of the Labour Party, was a candidate for a new ministerial post in this week’s shift.
It’s unlikely she was, given all the trouble she stirred up last spring. Listhaug and her former minister colleague Per Sandberg, both from the faction of the Progress Party that concentrates mostly on efforts to turn away would-be refugees and limit immigration, have each posed threats to the survival of Solberg’s government coalition. Listhaug is only a candidate to become Progress’ deputy leader because Sandberg was also forced to resign that post along with his ministerial post after a highly controversial summer holiday in Iran. The party has traditionally had two co-deputy leaders, one from each of its hard-line and liberal factions.
The question now is whether Solvik-Olsen will be able to continue as the Progress Party’s liberal deputy leader from his temporary residence in the US. One thing is certain: Solvik-Olsen’s political career is far from over. Progress Party leader Jensen stressed that she was already looking forward to his return in time for next year’s local election campaigns, while Solberg also said at a press conference on Friday that she looks forward “to cooperate with Solvik-Olsen in the future.
“This is not a farewell to politics for him,” Solberg stressed, before taking the initiative to give him a hug when the press conference ended. She said he had been “an extremely ambitious transport minister” and joined those praising his record on Friday. Newspaper Aftenposten wrote that Solvik-Olsen was “without doubt the most energetic transport minister” Norway has had in more than 20 years, and he got things done, including massive new investment in roads and railroads, with projects carried out more efficiently and at lower cost. He’s been so successful that Solberg was asked whether his resignation amounted to a major loss for her Conservatives-led government. “It is a loss for us,” Solberg conceded, but again stressed that he was expected to return to Norwegian politics next year.
Solvik-Olsen also appeals to a much wider group of voters than the controversial Listhaug or others in the Progress Party whose records are stained by sexual offenses. They include the new agriculture minister Hoksrud (who admitted to visiting prostitutes several years ago while on a trip abroad, after that became a criminal offense) and Søviknes, who faces the possible reopening of an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl in 2001. Both Søviknes and Solberg insisted that had nothing to do with his resignation as oil minister.
In the midst of all its ministerial turbulence, the Progress Party has been falling in public opinion polls recently. National election results have declined from 20.9 percent in 2009 to 16.3 percent in 2013 and 15.2 percent in 2017, with some polls now showing voter support of less than 12 percent. Commentators were claiming on Friday that the party needs some renewal, not least in the run-up to next fall’s municipal elections.
Norway’s new oil minister, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, remains the least known of the new members of Solberg’s government, but she stressed that he “knows the ministry well” after serving as a state secretary during Tord Lien’s tenure as oil minister. Freiberg, now a Member of Parliament representing his home district in Nordland County, is also expected to be as equally bullish on the oil industry as Søviknes was, and has supported oil and gas exploration off the scenic Lofoten islands in his native Northern Norway. Environmental and climate advocates were also on the offensive Friday, handing Freiberg written encouragement to protect the environment from oil activity as he also accepted flower bouquets outside the palace.
All three new ministers were settling into their new offices on Friday afternoon, just a day after Solberg held her last budget conference with her previous line-up before Parliament reopens in October. On Monday, their work both resumes and begins.