Support soars for Erna during crisis

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her Conservative Party are riding a huge wave of public support, as she guides Norway through the Corona virus crisis. A new public opinion poll shows Solberg’s Conservatives with even more voter support than in either of the last two elections, while also winning the title of Landsmoderen (literally, “mother of the country”).

Prime Minister Erna Solberg keeps urging Norwegians to wash their hands frequently, amidst massive support for how she’s handling the Corona virus crisis. PHOTO: Helse- og omsorgsdepartementet

The new poll, conducted by research firm Opinion for the generally Labour Party-friendly news services ANB and Frifagbevegelse and newspaper Dagsavisen, shows the Conservative Party with a gain of fully 8.5 points since March, when it also jumped from February’s poll.

Solberg’s Conservatives also now rank as the largest party in the land, with 27.3 percent of the vote, more than the 25 percent won in the 2017 election and the 26.8 percent in 2013 that first swept Solberg into the prime minister’s office.

The Conservatives’ new standing puts them ahead of arch-rival Labour’s 25.7 percent, which also marked a gain of 1.7 points but lost its status as the largest single party in Norway. Labour and the Conservatives, meanwhile, were the only two parties to gain support. All the others lost, with the Center Party down 4.6 points to 13.8 percent, Solberg’s former government partner Progress down 2 points to 11. 9 percent and only the Socialist Left and the Greens winning enough support for full representation in Parliament (5.9- and 4.7 percent respectively).

Solberg can’t be pleased that her two remaining government coalition partners (the Liberals and Christian Democrats) both lost more support and landed at just 2.9- and 3 percent. That leaves her minority coalition running way behind the left-center side unless Progress comes back into her fold.

Her own position, however, has clearly solidified, as Norwegians turned to government leaders in a crisis. Fully 72 percent of Norwegians support the Solberg government’s restrictive Corona containment measures, according to another recent poll. Newspaper VG could also report earlier this month that 77 percent think Solberg is doing a good job during the Corona crisis.

Solberg, known for an uncanny calmness even when under huge pressure, has won widespread praise also from traditional critics in recent weeks. They include commentator Arne Strand, former editor of Dagsavisen, who wrote even before the Easter holidays that Solberg “has shown herself to be a highly visible, safe and secure leader, a kind of landsmoder who exudes confidence.”

Strand and other political commentators have stressed that it’s not so much the crisis itself that has boosted support for the Conservatives and Solberg, who also recently trounced Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre as Norway’s preferred prime minister. Rather, Strand wrote, “it’s the manner in which the crisis is handled, and how government leaders present themselves, that matters.” Solberg, he added, “has never been my favourite politician, but now she impresses me.”

Solberg at one of her frequent press conferences, this one aimed entirely at answering questions from children. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Eirin Larsen

It’s also been noted that all the emergency state aid packages being handed out by the government, and sweetened by the opposition in Parliament, are far removed from the Conservatives’ normal policies. So are the invasive Corona infection control measures that are regulating Norwegians’ private lives and businesses. Few would have ever believed that it would be a finance minister from the Conservatives who would raid Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund (known as the Oil Fund) to offset an unprecedented state budget deficit.

Solberg simply has done what she’s viewed necessary when fighting an invisible enemy that has threatened Norway’s public health and economy. She has tried to reassure the nation, won cooperation from her political rivals and opted for a strategy that appears to be working. Her health minister, Bent Høie, could announce before the country’s cherished but highly distrupted Easter holidays that the “Corona epidemic is under control,” allowing Solberg to ease some of the restrictive Corona containment measures put in place March 12th.

‘We can rely on one another’
She has also stayed firmly in the public spotlight, formally addressing the nation, offering words of comfort and stressing the need for collective efforts (known as dugnad in Norwegian) to battle Corona. “This is not the time for ‘me,’ this is the time for ‘us,'” she declared in her first formal address to the nation on March 18.

“When terror and accidents have hit us, we have come through it together,” she stressed. “When freedom has been threatened, Norwegians gave everything for one another. This has given our country an advantage that’s more powerful than any weapon and more valuable than any Oil Fund. We can rely on one another.”

Solberg opted for a flowery dress in this week’s press conference aimed at children, at which she said she hoped they’d all had some nice Easter holidays. She’s flanked by her ministers in charge of education (Guri Melby, left) and family matters (Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, far right). PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor/Eirin Larsen

Solberg has also held frequent press conferences including two that have solely answered questions sent in from children all over the country. Wearing more colourful clothing and using simple language, Solberg addressed the concerns and agreed that it was litt dumt (seemingly stupid) but important that many children had to cancel birthday parties and football matches, and couldn’t hang out with friends from school. With her ministers in charge of education and family matters standing by, they all patiently tried to explain why life has fundamentally changed for the time being, with an authority that even most parents simply don’t have.

Solberg has also repeatedly stated to both adults and children alike that she and her government “understand” how troubling the Corona crisis can be, and that it’s “okay to be scared.” She has stressed, however, how most people don’t get seriously ill from Corona. She has managed to stay healthy herself, even during what must be the most exhausting period of her long political career.

As she keeps urging Norwegians to wash their hands frequently, limit any gatherings to just five people and assure parents and children that it’s safe to reopen day care centers and schools, she was asked by one child whether it was stressful it was to be prime minister right now.

“There’s a lot of responsibility,” she answered, “but I’m very lucky that I have lots of really clever people who help me.” She also said that she tries to get as much sleep and fresh air as possible, that she likes drinking blueberry juice and is lucky that “I have good health.”

Commentator Eva Grinde in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has noted that Norway’s greatest strength has been the team of people, led by Solberg, who haven’t hidden the uncertainty tied to the Corona virus or the internal disagreement it can create. They’ve admitted to making mistakes, with Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, who leads Norway’s public health institute, also candidly admitting they’re bound to make more. Grinde believes that, along with clear and constant communication, has further inspired good will among Norwegians.

Solberg herself characteristically downplays all the good feedback flowing in from a grateful public. As for the recent poll results, she told news service Frifagbevegelse this week that “it’s always nice with good numbers, but the most important task is to beat back this virus, and make sure we have jobs to go back to after the pandemic.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund