NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg characteristically put the best possible spin on the loss Monday of her longest and biggest government partner. Solberg has no apparent intention, however, of stepping down after the Progress Party withdrew in a huff from her coalition, and she even thanked Progress and praised their contribution over the past six-and-a-half years.
“I hope the Progress Party will continue a close and constructive cooperation from the Parliament,” Solberg said after Progress leader Siv Jensen dropped all efforts to resolve a conflict over repatriation of Norwegian terrorist’s widow and dropped out of the government instead. Jensen has also served as Norway’s finance minister since Progress and Solberg’s Conservatives first won government power in 2013.
As Norway’s krone immediately weakened on the news, Solberg noted that Jensen already had stressed that Progress wants Solberg to continue as prime minister. Solberg suggested that indicates how “we can secure acceptance for more policies that will be good for Norway and for most people in the years to come.” She claimed that with cooperation from Progress, her new minority coalition with the Liberal and Christian Democrats parties could continue to govern “in a good and predictable manner.”
It may even all prove to be a relief, since Progress, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats were often quarreling internally, not least on immigration and climate issues. Progress has has also had a string of scandals involving its politicians, forcing Solberg to tolerate quite a bit of disruption since they first won government power together in 2013.
Now, in some cases, Solberg’s coalition may even be able to win support from some of the other parties in opposition if they finally agree with the EU to take in more refugees, for example, or become more restrictive regarding oil exploration and production in the Arctic. With no official cooperation agreement between Progress and the conservative coalition, Solberg’s remaining coalition members are free to cooperate with any other party in Parliament in an effort to gain support for their issues.
It can also be a relief for Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who’s the clear candidate among the opposition parties to take over as prime minister if Solberg’s government were to fall. Støre had made it clear over the weekend, as a government crisis loomed, that he really didn’t want to take on the job now.
“This Parliament still has a non-socialist majority,” he noted to news bureau NTB. “I expect the government that’s now sitting to keep sitting.” He prefers to hope that Norway will “get a new majority” on his left-wing side of the political spectrum at the next election in 2021, after he’s had a chance to build up his own party. It’s been riddled with internal problems as well, and struggling in the polls since before and after the last election in 2017.
Political commentators agree that it would not be advantageous for Labour to take over now, in a new coalition that would likely include the Center and Socialist Left parties. They haven’t pounded out enough of their own differences, nor is Labour strong enough in the polls right now. They’re unlikely to win the Christian Democrats over to their side and there are many differences between Center and the Greens and Reds. A Labour-led coalition now could be ineffective and unsuccessful and lose again to a resurgent non-socialist side.
Progress keen to regain popularity
Many expect Progress to rebound in the polls, now that they’ve shaken off the confines of government cooperation. One of their former top politicians, who had to resign in a scandal of his own, thinks they could soar back up to 20 percent of the vote or more in 2021.
Per Sandberg, a former justice and and fisheries minister, conceded to newspaper Klassekampen that it may not sweep them back into government, but they’d be able to confront the Center Party and win back some of the voters it has won away during the government years when Progress had to be loyal to municipal- and county-government consolidation that’s upset many Norwegians in outlying areas.
Progress’ renewal efforts are likely to start just as soon as they’re liberated from their ministerial roles. It remained unclear Monday exactly when that will be, since Solberg must replace all of Progress’ ministers and they have to be formally appointed by the monarch at an extraordinary Council of State. With King Harald V still on sick leave, Crown Prince Haakon is regent but he was due to be in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Since necessary ministerial changes are usually swift, a Council of State may be held on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
‘Chaos is complete’
Opposition parties including Labour remained critical of the government upset on Monday, with Støre himself claiming that “Erna Solberg’s (majority) government collapsed after just one year, the non-socialist chaos is complete and that’s bad news for the country. More quarreling and unpredictable steering won’t solve the problems we have, for example, in the health care sector and working environment.”
Støre also thinks Solberg’s government may now, in many ways, be at the mercy of Progress in Parliament. He even fears that a free and feisty Progress, with the provocative and inflammatory Sylvi Listhaug as deputy leader or even taking over for Siv Jensen, may cater more to the far right wing. “That could give the far right more power, not less,” he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
While Støre thinks the “collapse” of a majority government “is bad news for the country,” the leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) welcomed the news. “Progress has been revealed as a party for the economic elite and not a party for most folks, like they try to claim,” Audun Lysbakken told NRK. “This is part of an effort raise themselves up again before the next election, but I don’t think it will work.”