Solberg wards off government crisis

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg finally got her three government coalition partners to agree late Friday night on a new compromise for financing transport improvements. The plan aims to reduce the need for local governments to impose more controversial bompenger (road tolls),  after months of noisy public opposition to higher tolls all over the country. 

Prime Minister Erna Solberg reasserted her authority Friday night, after a dramatic week of chaos and internal disagreement over road tolls within her four-party coalition government. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Anne Nordskog

The plan will boost the state’s financial contribution in so-called “50/50” transport projects to 66 percent. Local governments that agree to accept the higher state contribution must in turn use at least half of it to reduce road tolls and use the other half for public transport including more bus routes or tram lines.

More specifics, and how the funding for them will be raised, will be made clear in the government’s new state budget proposal that will be presented to Parliament in October. Solberg said, however, that the annual state contribution towards reduction of road tolls outside urban areas will increase to around NOK 1.4 billion. Another NOK 300 million will be earmarked for reduction of public transport ticket prices in Norwegian cities, while an extra NOK 250 million will be directed at better public transport in rural areas, including local train lines.

Solberg presented a long list of concrete projects set to benefit from the proposal that she said was formulated by her Conservative Party. It was quickly accepted by both the Progress Party and the Christian Democrats Friday evening. The Liberal Party. which has long promoted road tolls as a means of discouraging driving and raising money for public transport, remained a hold-out until finally going along as well just before midnight. The Liberals and Progress parties had been most at odds among the four, and with both of them diving in public opinion polls lately, it was important that each could claim victory.

Most serious conflict yet
The road toll conflict has been among the most serious to face Solberg since taking over as prime minister of a minority conservative government in 2013, and threatened to topple her government. Higher road tolls and far more extensive toll systems set up in cities like Stavanger, Bergen and Oslo left motorists faced with paying tens of thousands of more kroner per year, so it became a pocketbook issue that nurtured the rise of protest parties that have attracted large numbers of voters away from the established parties.

Progress and the Liberals were hurt the most: Progress because their long-time opposition to road tolls was viewed as ineffective, and the Liberals because road tolls simply aren’t popular. The Liberals also lost climate-friendly voters who viewed them as ineffective at promoting road tolls in a conservative government.

Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande was the last of the four party leaders to announce acceptance of the compromise over road tolls, just before midnight Friday. She also took the opportunity to criticize Prime Minister Solberg over the process behind the compromise, suggesting that not all is forgiven among the government parties after a long and bitter internal conflict. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Solberg was left to iron out the differences among her three government partners and it was far from easy. For the first time, commentators and critics speculated that she’d fail, and that either the Liberals or Progress would feel compelled to leave her government. That would have left Solberg with a minority coalition once again, while critics also blasted her for failing settle the bompenger krise (road toll crisis) months ago, and well before the upcoming local elections on September.

Solberg preferred to keep trying to work out a compromise, but that didn’t happen as expected before the summer holidays. She candidly admitted at her press conference Friday night how she hadn’t managed “to gather agreement among the four parties” despite repeated attempts. Clearly fed up herself by ongoing resistance to various proposals (especially from the Liberals), Solberg said Friday night that “conversations with the various parties can’t continue forever.” The others agreed on that and then Solberg struck an ultimatum: “I put forth a final proposal that the three other parties must take a position on during this weekend.” Her own Conservative party, which leads the coalition, declared that it was “important to clear this up now, also out of consideration to the ongoing (local) election campaign.”

Local politicians from all of Norway’s parties had, after all, been complaining that the road toll issue overshadowed all other issues in the current campaign. Now, with a road toll compromise in hand, they can presumably move on to other matters. Solberg said herself Friday night that she now looked forward to campaign in her native Bergen on Saturday, “and talk about how schools can be better, how elder care can be strengthened and actually get into the local election campaign that I think is incredibly important. We need to get it back on track, both for all the parties and to focus on local politics for the future.”

Lingering complaints and criticism
The Liberals, however, made it clear they only accepted the compromise begrudgingly. Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande was on national radio Saturday morning, criticizing Solberg and still complaining not so much about the compromise itself but over “the process” and how long it took to reach. She said she was glad that more money would be earmarked for public transport with less of it funded by road tolls, but she chided Progress for making “unrealistic demands” that couldn’t be granted.

“I don’t think politics should be steered by an ultimatum,” Grande said. She branded the political process over the past few months as unnecessarily “difficult,” even though she seemed pleased by the result.

Political commentators claim Solberg’s government has been seriously damaged by the road toll conflict, and that her reputation as a good leader may be irreparably tarnished. Sharp differences among the government parties remain, blurring any image of government solidarity. “This is the start of Erna Solberg’s swan song,” wrote commentator Arne Strand in newspaper Dagsavisen, which has a long history of supporting the opposition Labour Party. Others point to the fact that Solberg survived once again, and has two years to rebuild solidarity within her coalition before the next national election.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund