NEWS ANALYSIS: Last week she was speaking at the United Nations and rubbing elbows with other prime ministers and presidents from around the world. This week, back home in Norway, Erna Solberg was branded just before the formal opening of Parliament on Wednesday as a government leader without authority. Just keeping her government together will be as big a job as keeping the opposition at bay.
Solberg shuns the criticism but had to face another miserable set of public opinion poll results on Wednesday that show her Conservative Party with just 19.7 percent of the vote. That’s down from the 26.8 percent that first ushered her into government power in 2013, and the 25 percent that won her re-election in 2017.
Now, midway through her second term as Norway’s prime minister, Solberg is faced with more than just voter fatigue. Her dream of finally assembling a coalition government with a majority in Parliament just last January has repeatedly led to nightmares in the months since, most recently because of the intense quarreling between two of her four coalition members. The conservative Progress Party and the Liberal Party have been at each other’s throats since last spring over everything from bompenger (road tolls) to Progress’ harsh rhetoric, especially against migrants and Islam.
The latter particularly struck a nerve with the Liberal’s Member of Parliament Abid Raja, a lawyer by profession who also serves in the leadership of the Parliament itself. As the son of immigrants from Pakistan, he’s personally experienced what can only be described as prejudice and even racism over the years. One Raja supporter wrote in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten last month that it’s difficult for any Muslim in Norway not to take it personally when Progress leaders and MPs talk about “sneaking Islamization” of Norwegian society, or claim that “a new Crusade may be necessary” in order to halt “mass migration from Muslim countries.”
Others, including the Christian commentator and former editor of Vårt Land Helge Simonnes, have thanked Raja for scolding the Progress politicians’ often offensive rhetoric. Simonness in turn scolded the government’s Christian Democrats (the fourth party making up Solberg’s coalition) for mostly keeping quiet. Raja, wrote Simonnes, “is probably putting words on the experiences many Muslims in Norway have felt.” And many other immgrants, for that matter.
While some commentators and politicians have linked Raja’s recent torrents to power struggles within his own Liberal Party (which also has sunk in the polls), Solberg can’t ignore the bitter conflicts between the two parties in her own government coalition. The quarreling is tearing apart any pretense of unity even though all four parties did manage to agree on a state budget proposal that Progress leader Jensen will present next week in her capacity as Norway’s finance minister.
The conflict between Progress and the Liberals nonetheless continued on Tuesday, when Progress demanded written ballots as reconvening MPs met to elect Raja as vice president of Stortinget (the Parliament). All other members of the Parliament’s leadership were unanimously elected on a voice vote, but all MPs had to write down down Raja’s name on little slips of paper and place them in an urn. When counted up, 128 of the 159 MPs present voted for Raja but 31 ballots were blank. Progress has 27 seats in Parliament, so four other MPs also failed to support Raja as vice president in the otherwise anonymous, impromptu election.
“It’s not nice,” claimed Labour Party and oppositon leader Jonas Gahr Støre on state broadcaster NRK’s radio debate program Politisk kvarter Wednesday morning, that Progress still clearly felt a need to publicly “punish” Raja and the Liberals once again. The ongoing internal government conflict “takes attention away from all other politics,” just as it did during the campaign prior to the recent local governments’ elections. “What we saw in Parliament yesterday was an extension of the conflict,” Støre lamented.
Progress leaders dismissed the incident as “a warning that there’s a limit to how much we can tolerate from our government partners,” and that Progress was now ready to “put this behind us and focus on politics.” Raja himself stressed the fact that 80 percent of MPs elected him as their vice president of Parliament.
It’s left to Solberg to get her government partners to settle their internal differences and get on with running the country. Her inability to stop the quarreling is a sign she’s still lacking authority, claims political commentator Arne Strand in newspaper Dagsavisen, which traditionally supports Labour and the left side of Norwegian politics. “Erna Solberg’s regime is in the process of being phased out,” he declared even before Solberg left for the UN in New York.
“A prime minister with power would have put Siv Jensen and Sylvi Listhaug (yet another Progress politician known for offensive rhetoric) in their place,” Strand wrote. “For Erna Solberg it’s more important to gloss over the conflict. She’s trying to heal deep sores within her government with a little bandage. Norway is not well-served with a government at war with itself.”
Solberg has opted once again for her strategy to “keep calm and carry on,” as the majority government she worked so hard to put together seems to implode. Her government members should be enjoying their newfound power in Parliament, with a state budget backed by a majority for the first time that’s bound to sail through this fall. Instead, questions keep rising over whether Solberg’s coalition will ultimately fall apart and leave Norway facing a government crisis.
She admitted on Wednesday that the latest public opinion poll results “are not good enough” but told Aftenposten that “it just means we have to roll up our sleeves and keep working.” She insisted that “we have better policies than what these poll results show. We will work harder to show them off. Now we’ll have a debate in Parliament (the traditional two-day trontale debate that follows her government’s presentation of its agenda to King Harald V), and then comes the budget next week that will show that we have lots of good policies that we’re proud of both in the form of results for Norway but also for what we want to keep doing.”
‘Norway needs strong women’ to lead the country
In an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) after another 12-hour workday last week, while still basking in the international attention of the UN, Solberg said she thinks Norwegian voters will continue to prefer her own political stability and sense of security. She denied there’s “chaos” in her government, admitting only that “we spent too much time” on political “discussions” that weren’t entirely related to “the challenges ahead.” Voters clearly didn’t like that, she said, noting how all of her government parties suffered losses at the local level.
“If there’s one thing the Conservatives have learned, it’s patience,” Solberg said. “We have to speak at length about the challenges folks face and the solutions.” She added with a smile that “Norway needs strong and secure women” to lead the country, and vowed that her government will continue working “to secure welfare for the future, a competitive business environment, more jobs when the oil industry provides less in the economy, better inclusion and integration in society and a green shift for the climate,” adding that if Norway doesn’t have economic growth, its welfare state will be dismantled.
“I’m not going to say what I think I’ve done wrong during these past few months, I’ll leave that to my memoirs,” Solberg told DN. “I don’t have time for that right now. I’m steering the country.”