Prime Minister Erna Solberg must try to put some unexpected drama aside this weekend as her Conservative Party colleagues gather for their annual national meeting. She can do so from a fairly strong position: Solberg leads one of Norway’s few parties that’s not publicly split and now also ranks as largest in the land. She faces major challenges, though, in holding her coalition government together.
Solberg and the rest of Norway’s political world were suddenly reeling on Thursday after her justice minister from her coalition partner the Progress Party, Tor Mikkel Wara, had to go off on leave. His live-in partner of 24 years had just been arrested, charged with being behind a series of threats against their own home and family but allegedly staged to look like immigrants were to blame. Solberg was left facing a political scandal within a government party, the likes of which have never been seen in Norway. Wara’s samboer, as domestic partners are called in Norway, claimed innocence Thursday night, according to her quickly appointed defense attorney, but Solberg admitted that the “difficult situation” threw both her and her government into a state of shock.
Bad start for annual meeting
It was the worst possible run-up to her own annual party meeting, but Solberg otherwise received quite a gift on the eve of it earlier in the week. A new public opinion poll ranks her Conservative Party (Høyre) as largest once again, with 26.1 percent of the vote. The poll, conducted by research firm Opinion for the newspaper group ANB, also showed that the Conservatives jumped four full points from ANB’s last poll.
The increase came at the expense of the Labour Party, which tumbled three points to land at 25.1 percent of the vote. Its two political partners in Parliament, the Center Party and the Socialist Left (SV), also fell, down 1.2 points to 12.7 percent, while two of the Conservatives’ partners fell as well. The Progress Party landed at 10.6 percent of the vote and the Liberals just 2 percent, while the Christian Democrats moved up to 4.8 percent of the vote, surpassing the important 4 percent level that brings extra seats in Parliament.
Solberg is also fortunate in leading a party that seems as united as most can be in polarized times. There’s little if any public feuding within the Conservatives, in sharp contrast to Labour, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Solberg herself enjoys solid support as party leader and was pleased by the poll results: “This is very good.” She told FriFagbevegelse that she views the strong poll results as “a signal that folks see that things are going well in Norway.”
She and her party colleagues have a long agenda through the weekend, not least as they discuss what Norwegians will live off in the future. “That’s one of the most important questions when we meet,” she stated. “We need more private sector jobs to secure the welfare state.”
The Conservatives firmly oppose setting any deadline to phase out the oil industry, simply because it employs so many Norwegians. “We won’t be setting any end to the oil business,” the Conservatives’ outgoing deputy leader Bent Høie said. “This is a business with thousands of jobs, both in the cities and the districts. It’s critical for many locally owned small- and medium-sized companies along the coast.”
That’s bad news for all those urging a phase-out because of climate concerns. The meeting was beginning just as thousands of Norwegian school students are rallying every Friday to urge politicians to take climate change seriously. A professor of geology at the University of Bergen, Solberg’s home town, issued a call on Thursday to stop issuing oil drilling licenses.
“If Norway is to follow up the ambitions of the Paris Agreement (on carbon emissions cuts), we have to phase out the oil business,” Professor William Helland-Hansen wrote in newspaper Aftenposten. “Let us begin by halting our issuance of exploration licenses.”
Defying oil concerns
Solberg’s Conservatives reject the thought, even though voter support may ultimately run against them. They claim to encourage “a sustainable world,” however, as long as others cut carbon emissions.
Her biggest challenge will be keeping her government coalition together and maintaining the majority they just won in Parliament, when the Christian Democrats finally joined the fold. The four parties in the coalition remain split on several major issues including abortion, immigration policy and oil. When the Liberals held their national meeting last weekend, they approved as many as 15 measures that put them on a collision course with the Conservatives and the Progress Party. The Liberals, and to a certain degree the Christian Democrats, are in favour of curtailing the oil industry, and want to boost immigration.
It will take all of Solberg’s calm and patience to keep her unruly pack in line. The meeting at Gardermoen will attract delegates from all over the country and run through Sunday.