Coalition in limbo as its parties quarrel

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Norwegians headed into the weekend Friday with their government in limbo. Leaders of Norway’s government coalition appeared unwilling to bow to looming demands from their unhappy Progress Party partner, while Progress’ Siv Jensen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg planned to meet on Monday. Some think Progress’ exit could even benefit all involved.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s four-party conservative government coalition posed for photos in connection with the opening of Parliament last fall. It may not stay together much longer. PHOTO: Stortinget

Both Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande and Christian Democrats leader Kjell Ingolf Ropstad have refused to grant any new concessions to Progress. “We stand behind the government platform we have and see no reason to change it,” Grande told news bureau NTB. Ropstad said much the same: “The four parties (including Progress and the Conservatives) agreed on a political platform and work from there.”

Solberg and her Conservatives have also leaned on the government’s platform since Jensen first threatened to drop out of the four-party conservative coalition. Jensen’s Progress Party was overruled by the other three parties when they rescued a sick Norwegian child earlier this week from a squalid refugee camp in Syria that’s been housing the families of defeated and dead members of the IS terrorist organization. The child, his sister and Pakistani-Norwegian mother were on their way to Norway Friday evening, where the children will receive the health care they need while their mother faces terrorism charges.

Siv Jensen and Erna Solberg have often seemed to get along fairly well, but Jensen’s party is full of politicians who are much more right-wing oriented. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Progress never objected to rescuing the child or other Norwegian children from the camp, but has refused to help their mothers. Progress considers them terrorists who pose a security risk, and doesn’t think Norwegian taxpayers have any obligation to help repatriate those who willingly traveled to the Middle East to support IS.

That has deeply split the government, with Progress threatening to leave it and rejoin the opposition in Parliament. That would in turn destroy Solberg’s current conservative majority, leaving her remaining minority government with less than 34 percent of the vote in the last election in 2017 and in peril of falling on any given issue.

On the other hand, some commentators were claiming Friday that the conflict over repatriation of IS families could be good for all involved. Progress, which has lost nearly half its voters in recent months after a series of scandals and political compromises, may see an opportunity to re-establish itself as a protest party in opposition. The remaining three parties get along fairly well on a wide range of issues, and may win support on various issues from other opposition parties in Parliament or Progress itself.

No ‘better conflict’ on which to break free
Kjetil B Alstadheim, political commentator in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), wrote on Friday that Jensen “could hardly find a better conflict than this one” to shake off the confines of government cooperation. It’s much better, he noted, than an earlier heated conflict over road tolls, not least since Progress has held political control of the transport ministry since 2013.

It’s also better, he wrote, than a looming “abstract” conflict over how far north Norway should allow oil drilling in the Arctic. On that issue, the Liberals, Christian Democrats and some factions within the Conservatives favour a drilling limit as far south as possible, and thus may win support from the Greens or other more climate-conscious parties in opposition.

Alstadheim and commentators for state broadcaster NRK have also pointed out that Jensen, who has served as Norway’s finance minister for a record six-and-a-half years, already has met her goal of getting Progress into government and surviving much longer than anyone expected. After leading her turbulent party for many years, she may even decide it’s time to step aside and let someone else re-ignite it.

‘Good riddance’
A majority within Progress now seems to keen to ditch their government project, while many voices in the other parties are all but wishing them good riddance. Michael Tetzschner, a veteran of the Conservative Party, told newspaper Klassekampen on Friday that he didn’t like how Jensen was publicly challenging and undermining Solberg’s authority as prime minister.

There’s also been rising dissatisfaction among the rank and file over how Progress has conducted itself within Solberg’s government and over how Solberg has put up with the scandals among Progress politicians that have forced ministerial changes, including a rapid rotation of justice ministers from Progress because of various types of trouble they got into. Current Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr is the sixth in as many years.

A trio of other Members of Parliament for the Conservatives went so far as to unleash their irritation in a podcast this week, in which they portrayed the Progress Party as whiney and behaving like a teenager. “I think the Conservatives feel like a teenager’s mother who has to clean and wash up after them and constantly send messages about what’s to become of them,” said MP Henrik Asheim, who leads the finance committee in Parliament. The tone was so poor by Friday that many were wondering whether the current government coalition would ever be able to work together again.

Solberg and Jensen will nonetheless meet on Monday, to go over Progress’ still-unspecified demands. The other parties will also have a chance to respond, at which point Jensen will take their responses back to her party for evaluation at a strategy session scheduled for the end of the month. The coalition’s fate is thus expected to remain in limbo until then.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund