Støre closing in on Erna Solberg’s job

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Backed by more favourable polls both for his Labour Party and himself, Jonas Gahr Støre seems to be closing in on his goal over the past six years: to take over as Norway’s next prime minister. It’s looking more and more likely that Støre will be able to replace the Conservatives’ Erna Solberg and form a new left-center coalition of Labour, the Center Party and the Socialist Left (SV). 

Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour Party and its candidate for prime minister, opened Labour’s annual national meeting in digital form on Thursday, speaking to a mostly empty room but with delegates all over the country tuning in. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

The new poll results could hardly have come at a better time, just as Støre was launching Labour’s annual national meeting that was extending into the weekend. One poll conducted by research firm Opinion for the news outlets Frifag-bevegelse, Dagsavisen and ANB showed Labour reclaiming its traditional spot as Norway’s largest party, even with just 23.1 percent of the vote. Solberg’s Conservative Party, which has been largest for several years, slipped to 21.7 percent, with the left-leaning Center Party in third place with 19 percent. SV held 7.7 percent with the rest of the voters scattered over the five other parties represented in Parliament.

Then came another poll that seemed to confirm how Solberg herself has also lost popularity as prime minister, with just 37 percent preferring her and 33 percent preferring Støre. The rest either preferred Center’s leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (19 percent) or were undecided in the poll conducted by research firm Norstat.

Støre’s 33 percent may not seem like much but it meant he’s now “breathing down Solberg’s neck,” as newspaper Aftenposten put it, since she’s long been favoured by well over half the voters. It’s unclear exactly why she lost so much favour, but many Norwegians were disappointed after learning recently that she and her family had violated her own government’s rules when celebrating her 60th birthday in February. She was fined NOK 20,000 because 13 people gathered for a dinner arranged by her husband, three more than allowed.

Even though her right-center government has received generally high marks for leading the nation through the Corona crisis, it’s also likely that Solberg and her ministers are suffering voter weariness. After eight years in office, it may simply be time for a change.

Støre often seemed more comfortable as foreign minister meeting heads of state than out on the campaign trail, like here in 2019. He’s now ready to stride into this year’s election campaign with the goal of emerging as prime minister. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Støre, who served as foreign minister through most of Jens Stoltenberg’s last Labour-led governments from 2005-2013, has been waiting ever since to take the helm. He’s struggled through years with bitter internal party strife, embarrassing sexual harassment charges against former deputy Labour leader Trond Giske and charges that Støre is often seen as unclear or waffling on issues.

As the son of politically conservative and affluent parents who grew up in a wealthy area on Oslo’s west side, Støre has also long been seen as an unlikely Labour leader. With degrees from prestigious universities and fluency in several languages, many industrial workers and union members simply haven’t identified with him.

Yet it was during his time as a student in France that Støre had his political awakening, according to Dagsavisen. “He viewed the enormous differences in French society as a tragedy that hurt everyone,” wrote Dagsavisen’s Jens Marius Sæther. “That’s when he realized that Norway’s social democratic values that he’d taken for granted had to be fought for.” He went on to work for Labour’s legendary prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and, later, Stoltenberg, who now serves as secretary general of NATO. Støre’s high levels of education and language skills came in especially handy when he was foreign minister and also survived a terrorist attack in Afghanistan.

Jonas Gahr Støre has worked closely for and with two of Labour’s most well-regarded prime ministers over the years: Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jens Stoltenberg. Brundtland went on to head the UN World Health Organization, while Stoltenberg is now secretary general of NATO. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

He’s had to put up with lots of prejudice, though, both within and outside his party, where many still felt he was out of touch with the rank of file. He’s worked hard for the past several years to prove them wrong with support from Brundtland, who was educated as a doctor and faced similar skepticism. She has staunchly noted, though, that “it was the Labour Party that built (after World War II) our education-oriented society. It would be ridiculous if higher education should disqualify anyone from political activity.”

Støre still faces a big job bringing his party together, and he was caught Friday afternoon in a major internal party debate over drug reform. Støre opposed the drug reform proposal and seemed to prevail. There are many other areas of disagreement within Labour but Støre has remained the party’s prime minister candidate. As they hammer out their program through the weekend they’ll also need to agree on positions that will both win back voters from the Center Party while also being able to cooperate with Center in a new coalition after the September election.

Moving towards a majority in Parliament
According to the website pollofpolls.no, Center has attracted as many as 67,000 of the voters who cast their ballots for Labour in the last parliamentary election in 2017. Center emerged as even slightly bigger than Labour in polls last winter but has since fallen back.

The bottom line, according to most political commentators in Norway, is that  Labour, Center and SV look set to win enough support in Parliament to form a government, and would hold a majority with cooperation from the Reds and the Greens. Erna Solberg is still keen to win a third term, but at this point, little indicates her government will be re-elected, not least because her centrist partners (the Liberals and Christian Democrats) and even her right-wing former partner, the Progress Party, have all lost lots of voter support.

“It’s going the right way for (for Støre) and the Labour Party seems to have more self-confidence and strength than it has for a long time,” wrote commentator Eva Grinde in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. She also noted that Labour is also trying hard to appeal to who they call “ordinary folks,” workers who have suffered the most during the Corona crisis. There are no lack of them and “now it’s their turn” to enjoy better times, the party claims. It may well be Støre’s turn, too.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund