A wayward party fellow in Molde and one of her own top advisers managed to make a mess of things for the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Erna Solberg, soiling her otherwise well-regarded handling of the Corona crisis. She ended up having to apologize for them on Tuesday, after what some call a “political scandal” that took some of the shine off her success.
It can all be pegged to how everyone is sick and tired of the Corona virus, the restrictions it’s forced upon Norwegians (none moreso than those living in Oslo) and the economic mayhem it’s created. Solberg, who turned 60 last week and couldn’t even celebrate the special birthday because of Corona, has nonetheless kept trying to boost everyone else’s spirits and rally the troops. She’s worked hard to nurture a feeling a common purpose (called dugnad in Norwegian) in the battle against Corona infection.
She’s succeeded in many ways, with Norway consistently ranked as having one of lowest infection and death rates in the world. “We all have to stand in this together and hold out,” she’s said on many occasions. Contrary to other countries where citizens have publicly protested limits on their personal freedom, Norwegians have mostly abided by the restrictions and been good sports.
Until this past weekend, when the mayor of the small city of Molde in central Norway suddenly kicked up quite a fuss. Mayor Torgeir Dahl publicly lashed out at his political counterpart in Oslo, complaining that the capital’s Labour-led government had failed at controlling virus infection. Many suspected Dahl was making an offensive strike to ward off efforts by Oslo’s leaders to get bigger allocations of Corona vaccine, at the expense of other municipalities like Molde.
Dahl was apparently so provoked by Oslo’s high infection rates that he claimed to national newspaper VG that it was “natural from my perspective to ask the city government in Oslo whether they just can’t manage to do their job in a proper manner, or whether residents can’t manage to follow the rules.”
It was equivalent to kicking someone when they’re down, since infection had just spiked to such a level that Oslo leader Raymond Johansen had to impose another social shutdown. Not only did Johansen call Dahl’s offensive “distasteful,” so did Oslo’s former Conservative Mayor Fabian Stang and several other top politicians both at the state and local level.
Dahl was also assaulted from all sides in social media by people who considered his attack on Oslo both unreasonable and unfair. It’s been much easier, many noted, to maintain control over infection in a city of 30,000 like Molde, than in a city of nearly 700,000 like Oslo that also serves as the country’s gateway. Most of its infection has been imported and now it’s faced with rising cases of the highly contagious strains of Covid-19 as well.
Dahl’s attack on Oslo also amounted to exactly what Solberg has tried to avoid during the entire crisis: pitting one area of the country against another, and particularly exploiting rural vs. urban conflict. Many felt Dahl was trying to pick a fight between Molde and the capital and create division when his own party’s leader and prime minister has nurtured solidarity.
Dahl admitted on national radio Monday morning, as the media storm continued, that he had acted on his own initiative and hadn’t cleared his outburst with either government officials in Oslo. It was only after “things started burning” that he contacted someone at the health ministry, he said live on NRK’s popular morning talk show Politisk kvarter. Solberg herself said she wasn’t aware of it until she read about it in VG on Sunday.
Later on Monday, however, NRK could report that it was Solberg’s own state secretary and top adviser, Peder W Egseth, who had helped put Dahl in contact with newspaper VG. Egseth and Dahl had also spoken on the phone several times during the weekend, and Egseth had even reportedly contacted some other small-town mayors to see whether they’d join in the criticism of Oslo. Dahl later admitted to VG that he’d called Egseth “because I thought someone should launch a debate in national media over how Oslo handles infection and how vaccine is distributed.” He clearly didn’t want to have to hand over some of Molde’s vaccine to Oslo because it needed it more.
That’s what dragged Solberg herself into the middle of the conflict. She initially issued a rebuke to Egseth on social media, calling his initiative “an unnecessary contribution to the Corona debate.” When the fuss didn’t die down, she finally called Oslo’s Raymond Johansen herself on Tuesday afternoon and apologized that her office had been involved. She also called a sudden press conference Tuesday night.
“I want to stress that I’m sorry the office has been involved in something that defies the government’s own work,” Solberg said. “Contributing to something that creates conflict between various cities’ handling of infection is not something anyone in the prime minister’s office should do.” She said she’d had a “lengthy conversation” with Peder Egseth.
“In some cases local politicians had contacted Peder, while in other cases it was Peder who’d contacted them,” Solberg said. “He shouldn’t have done that. I have been very clear about that with him.”
Asked whether there would be any consequences for Egseth, Solberg said he’d created “a public scrape” on his record, “but beyond that I think Peder is clever and competent and everyone can make mistakes. I also think folks should get a second chance.” Egseth, who’s originally from Trøndelag, was not present at Solberg’s press conference.
It all added to what already was a tough week for Solberg. While her Conservative Party remains Norway’s largest in public opinion polls, her non-socialist coalition partners have shrunk to mere shadows of themselves and it’s looking increasingly likely that Solberg won’t win a third term as prime minister in the national election this autumn. Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim has already raised the prospect that Solberg will suffer the same fate as Winston Churchill: in her case, winning the war against Corona but losing the next election because ungrateful voters want to move on.
If the virus is controlled, if life returns to normal and the economy rebounds, she may still have a chance at re-election. Her government does not score well on climate issues, however, and the left-center parties are jockeying for position to take over but still lack any common platform.
Low-key birthday celebration
Meanwhile, Solberg’s customary calm remained intact. She put on a brave face over the lack of any 60th birthday celebrations last week, settling for a dinner at home with her husband, her son and her daughter, whose university if currently closed. Solberg told Aftenposten it felt “strange” to be 60, because she used to view that as being old. Not any longer, and she said she still feels there’s a lot “undone” that she wants to do. At the same time, longtime friends are starting to talk about retiring. “That’s very far from where I am,” she said, as she gears up for the election campaign.
Despite all the constant Corona challenges, the business of running the rest of the country and dealing with the Molde mayor’s fuss, she still found time to grab a front-page byline on TIME magazine this week. She wrote one of the many tributes in TIME’s “Next 100 most influential people” issue, and it went to Sanna Marin, the 35-year-old prime minister of Finland. Despite close ties among the Nordic countries, Solberg and Marin haven’t yet met in person because of Corona restrictions, but have online. Solberg was clearly impressed and wrote that Marin has proved that “good leadership does not depend on age.” Her biggest attribute, in Solberg’s view: remaining “steady under pressure.”