NEWS ANALYSIS: Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the Greens Party has long been one of Oslo’s most unrelenting and controversial politicians. Now she’s lost the confidence of an unusual majority on the Oslo City Council, throwing the entire city government into turmoil and bringing it down with her after she refused to resign her own city government post.
The drama around Berg at Oslo’s City Hall, and during an awkward and fateful digital meeting of the Oslo City Council, ended up toppling the Norwegian capital’s government. It’s been led since 2015 by the Labour, Greens and Socialist Left (SV) parties, with Berg playing a major role in it.
She’s been in trouble before, but now she’s accused of withholding information about a huge budget overrun tied to the city’s massive new project to set up a reserve system for drinking water. On Wednesday all the opposition parties on the City Council plus the Reds Party went ahead with their warnings of lodging a lack of confidence vote against her.
City government leader Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, who needs the support of Berg’s Greens Party to hang on to power, responded by announcing that the entire government would resign in a show of solidarity. That’s what ultimately happened after an hour of sometimes clumsy and garbled digital debate.
“This is a sad situation and serious for the city,” Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen of SV said just after her own government resigned. She’s now charged with appointing someone already on the City Council to form a new government, just as it needs to guide Oslo through the final stretch of the Corona crisis. “Political chaos is the last thing Oslo needs right now,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen earlier in the day.
Berg had refused, however, to voluntarily resign her government post and thus ward off the looming majority’s lack of confidence vote in her work. The majority included the non-socialist parties and, most importantly, the left-wing Reds Party, which normally has supported the Labour-led government. It too, however, had determined that Berg failed to properly inform the entire City Council of a huge budget overrun on the long-overdue project to improve the city’s drinking water supply. Neither they nor the public learned that the water project’s budget needed to be boosted by 40 percent (NOK 5 billion) until presentation of the city’s revised budget in late May, when they were left with little choice but to simply accept it.
Berg has admitted that she’s known the water project’s budget had burst since late last year, but claimed she needed more time to have the numbers checked for quality. Questions remain as to when she told Johansen about it. Asked at Wednesday’s press conference whether he first learned about it last fall, he replied that he received his first “thorough” report on the project’s higher costs in mid-March. He avoided answering whether he’d been aware of it earlier than that.
Johansen chose, at any rate, to support Berg, claiming he still had “full confidence” in her. He also needs full support from her Greens Party to keep his city government in power, and clearly didn’t want to risk alienating them and being left with a minority coalition. This week’s drama at Oslo City Hall has been an illustration of power politics played out in their most brutal, if not cynical, form.
For the other parties on Oslo’s City Council, Berg’s budget bombshell only added to growing frustration with her way of operating. Several party delegation leaders referred to earlier examples of an alleged nonchalance over both information-sharing and budget issues, and Berg’s reluctance to admit making any mistakes. In the end, her government colleagues actually ended up defending a NOK 5 billion budget overrun and questionable reporting of it, for the sake of hanging on to political power.
Same parties, new faces
Now it’s up to Mayor Borgen to speak with all party delegations leaders on Thursday and appoint a new government leader who in turn will form a new city government. Since election results from 2019 still apply, it’s likely that Johansen will actually be reappointed and that his Labour Party will simply form a new government with SV and the Greens: same parties but perhaps new faces.
Johansen refused to answer whether Berg will be part of it, but Berg later said she won’t. Since she’s now the Greens’ candidate in Oslo for a seat in Parliament, she can simply turn her energies to the national election campaign and effectively resign anyway while saving face. She told reporters that she was surprised the Reds voted against her and, in doing so, was part of unseating a left-green government. She seemed to exonerate herself and now says she doesn’t want to sit in a new city government: “I’ll take responsibility now to say that I won’t be a candidate because I regardless need to campaign (for Parliament).”
She still believes she didn’t do anything wrong and never considered resigning. Others, including Eivor Evenrud of the Reds, claim she should have resigned voluntarily and spared both her government and the city council for all the disruption.
It remains unclear what the lack of confidence vote in Oslo will mean for Berg’s career. If the Greens win enough votes for full representation in Parliament (new public opinion polls indicate they recently fell under the 4 percent needed) Berg will surely win a seat. She and Johansen may both advance to the national stage, since Labour is currently leading in the polls and he’d be in the running for a ministerial post in a new Labour government.