Political posturing infects Corona rules

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Four opposition parties in Parliament stirred up a fuss this week after joining forces to defy and even overturn national rules aimed at halting the spread of the Corona virus. The opposition politicians claim they were just doing their job of challenging the government, while their critics retort they were merely trying to grab attention at the start of an election year.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (right) had to make no less than three trips to Parliament this week, and none of them were pleasant. Here’s she’s being questioned by her former government partner Siv Jensen, head of the Progress Party that’s currently struggling in public opinion polls. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her conservative coalition government have generally won widespread praise for keeping Corona infection and death rates low compared to most other countries. She and especially her health minister, Bent Høie, have remained calm in crisis and highly visible, appearing regularly with state health officials and relying on their professional assessments of what’s needed to retain control over the virus.

They’ve enjoyed high levels of public confidence and cooperation in return. They have also mostly won political support in Parliament for their restrictive Corona containment measures, until this week.

The noise began just after Prime Minister Erna Solberg presented her government’s latest report on the status of the Corona pandemic in Norway on Monday. That very evening, the opposition suddenly struck back through an unusual political alliance that included Solberg’s former government partner and most conservative party in Parliament, Progress. It teamed up with the Socialist Left (SV), Labour and the Center parties, usually Progress’ arch-enemies on a wide variety of issues.

Together they formed a majority that all but forced Solberg’s government to extend the period of time during which workers laid off because of the Corona crisis can collect unemployment benefits before they have to seek new jobs. Solberg had already extended it earlier and gone along with another extension until June 1, even though most economists advise against that on the grounds those laid off can become too passive. Labour, SV, Center and, more surprisingly, Progress suddenly decided that workers should be able to continue to get state support until October 1, by which time the Corona crisis should be easing and employers can call them back to work.

Progress’ Siv Jensen (left) and several other politicians in Parliament were later accused to politicizing the pandemic in an effort to boost her own party’s standings. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

That was Solberg’s first defeat and more loomed: Monday evening also brought nearly two-dozen other economic proposals that the Parliament’s new so-called “gang of four” forced upon the government. On Tuesday came even more, including their own measures for limiting imported infection, but also allowing local governments to decide for themselves whether local bars and restaurants should be allowed to serve alcohol. They claimed that areas with low Corona infection levels shouldn’t be subject to the same strict rules as those with high infection levels, like Oslo.

That prompted a frustrated Health Minister Høie to simply revoke the government’s national ban on serving drinks (to limit social gatherings). That meant that some bars and restaurants around the country will be reopening this weekend.

Then things got really noisy, however, when quarreling began over who will be responsible if things go wrong and infection rates jump in areas where people can once again gather for drinks. The opposition parties suddenly found themselves potentially unable to blame the government, since they were ultimately behind the bars’ reopening. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen quickly claimed she hadn’t intended for Høie to simply revoke the national ban, while SV leader Audun Lysbakken told reporters that Høie had acted like a child who didn’t get his way.

Political reporters and commentators pounced, suggesting that Progress joined the opposition because it’s been lagging in public opinion polls and wants to better appeal to Corona-weary voters. Labour has also been struggling, but its embattled leader Jonas Gahr Støre flatly denied that any such populism was involved. He told newspaper Aftenposten that it was “completely normal” for the opposition to influence policy and that his party’s record-low voter support in recent polls didn’t mean Labour had to get tougher.

Critics were not impressed. Dr Mads Gilbert, a surgeon at the University of Northern Norway’s hospital in Tromsø, is best-known for donating his services to wounded Palestinians in Gaza and being firmly on the left side of Norwegian politics, but he supported the Conservatives-led government on this issue when he took part in a televised debate on NRK Thursday night. He blasted Jensen and SV’s leaders for pushing through a relaxation of Corona rules without any backing from health professionals or thought for the consequences.

‘Disorderly posturing in a pandemic’
So have others, with Aftenposten accusing the opposition parties in an editorial this week of “disorderly posturing in a pandemic.” They all ended up exposing “a need to emerge from the Corona shadow,” and restorted to hasty measures that aren’t grounded on any professional foundation. Solberg, meanwhile, had already warned that the opposition’s 33 demands were poorly prepared and may even violate Norway’s obligations under its trade agreement with the EU. “It’s my duty to inform Parliament that the measures it’s proposing can lead to difficulties,” Solberg said from the floor during the Parliament’s question-hour on Wednesday.

“The proposals lack professional evaluations and aren’t backed by clear funding sources even though they’ll cost many billions of kroner,” added Terje Breivik, leader of the parliamentary delegation for the small Liberal Party, which is part of Solberg’s government.

Sylvi Listhaug, the normally outspoken deputy leader of Progress, initially responded that the government parties were merely “sour” and griping over the opposition’s political offense. She stressed that the government must “respect” the parliament’s majority, but then seemed to fall more silent as criticism poured in later in the week. Jensen was left to defend her party’s contribution to the majority by Thursday night.

‘Confusion over who’s responsible’
Solberg ended up making three appearances in Parliament this week, to deal with all the new demands placed on her government, and try to fend some off. Media commentators, meanwhile, mostly backed her, arguing that it wasn’t Parliament’s role to “dictate” to the government. “The Parliament’s role is to control the government’s activity,” editorialized Aftenposten. “Now the Parliament wants to dictate, and that creates confusion over who’s responsible.”

Kjell Werner, political commentator for the ANB organization of left-leaning Norwegian newspapers, also warned that Members of Parliament need to be more careful and could end up shooting themselves in the foot. By forcing Solberg to change her policies and adopt theirs instead, the four parties that formed a temporary political alliance may have tried to play a more active role in the Corona crisis but challengee principles of the balance of power in the process. Werner urged the opposition against “going too far,” because it could backfire on them in the long run.

“When Parliament tries to steer the details, it becomes problematic,” Werner wrote. “Responsibility is pulverized. The Parliament isn’t doing itself a favour if it tries to behave like the government.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund