Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has had to face one crisis after another since being elected in September. He admitted himself just before the Christmas holiday break that dealing with them all has taken time away from his new government’s platform, which has faced plenty of political near-crises, too.
“I think everyone who spends their life in politics really wants to create change and address issues, rather than have to handle crises,” Støre said at a traditional pre-Christmas press conference. “That also applies to myself.”
Instead he had to immediately deal with the crises that inevitably come up when leading a minority government like his. After finally striking compromises between his own Labour Party and his more conservative government partner, the Center Party, they both have to win support from either the Socialist Left Party (SV) or others to win a majority in Parliament. That takes a lot more time, and already has forced Støre to go along with other, often more expensive, demands.
Støre also quickly faced an embarrassing personnel crisis of sorts, when Labour’s choice as president of the Parliament, Eva Kristin Hansen, had to resign after just a few weeks for misusing the national assembly’s generous benefits system. Then the costs of Norway’s once-cheap hydro-electric power soared to heights never seen before and Corona infection started skyrocketing again, to the highest levels seen during the pandemic so far. That forced a new Corona crackdown and emergency sessions with political allies and foes alike to come up with new state compensation packages, with mixed results at best.
It’s all led to a sharp drop in voter support for the government parties, which have both fallen in public opinion polls since taking office. The Conservatives have re-emerged as the largest party in Parliament and other opposition parties including SV have jumped. “I’m well aware of the poll results,” Støre said, “but believe me, what’s taking up our time is to solve the problems the government faces here and now.” Asked whether there’s been time for much else than crisis management, Støre had a one-word answer: “Little.”
Støre still insists that when taking office three months ago, his highest priority was to carry out the policies in the platform presented with Center Party leader, now finance minister, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. The goal, Støre claims, “was to create a fairer Norway” but he’s been constantly distracted.
“It wasn’t face masks and home offices and traffic-light rules for schools he wanted to spend time on,” noted political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in newspaper Aftenposten. “His new government was virus-free, but during recent weeks, he’s hardly dealt with anything other than the virus.”
Støre learned quickly that it’s not easy to carry out a political agenda in the midst of crises. Støre has been painfully reminded of how he criticized his predecessor as prime minister, Conservatives’ leader Erna Solberg, for her own alleged lack of satisfactory crises packages for companies and an alleged lack of border control to fend off imported infection. He also claimed that there would have been less infection in Norway if Solberg’s government had carried out different policies.
In December, however, there’s been more infection in Norway than ever. Asked whether he regrets his earlier criticism, Støre said on NRK’s national radio program Politisk kvarter that he has since “adjusted” his “formulation.” Asked whether that’s political language to express regret, Støre conceded that “yes, as it came out, it was wrong.”
There’s no question Støre’s government has had a very weak start. Some political commentators have actually expressed some sympathy for all the bad luck he’s had, and the crises landing in his lap. He didn’t get any honeymoon period, and his goals for his first 100 days in office are unlikely to be met. “It actually seems unfair,” wrote Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen. “The plan is to take Norway into a green and climate-friendly future without businesses going bankrupt in the process, jobs disappearing, state finances waning and exports weakening.” To do that, she said, widespread cooperation is needed on many fronts, most of which are all having to deal with at least their own Corona distractions, too.
Tough year, also personally
The entire past year has been demanding for Støre, both politically and personally. It started out with his mother, Unni Gahr, dying in January, not long after he’d lost his father as well. Støre had already taken over his childhood home in Oslo and NRK reported that he never, apart from during his time abroad at university and extensive traveling as a long-time diplomat and foreign minister, lived anywhere else until moving into the prime minister’s residence just behind the Royal Palace in Oslo. He sat for an interview with NRK inside his still-new home on Lille Julaften (Little Christmas Eve) last week, and let it be known that the professionally decorated Christmas tree in the living room “isn’t really my style.” Instead, he produced a box of ornaments from home, some handmade as a child, that he used to trim another tree in the residence.
It’s been pointed out that Labour’s 10th prime minister isn’t like his party predecessors. Aftenposten has described Støre as serious, well-educated, ambitious, cultivated, quick-thinking and equipped with a long career in politics, diplomacy, bureaucracy and organizations. In addition to being active in Norwegian peace brokering in the 1990s, he’s also a former secretary general of the Norwegian Red Cross. He’s long been married to his newly ordained pastor wife Marit Slagsvold and they have three grown sons and two grandchildren.
Støre is not a product of the labour movement, hailing instead from a family that inherited wealth from the sale of the Jøtul oven producer. His father was a shipbroker, his mother was a librarian and Jonas was an unusually gifted student who went on to study at Norway’s naval academy and the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), where he became fluent in French and the best in his class. More studies followed at Harvard in the US and the Norwegian business school BI. It didn’t take long before he became a political adviser to former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and later, at age 33, head of international affairs in the prime minister’s office.
Now, at age 61, he’s hoping like everyone else that 2022 will be a better year than Corona-plagued 2021. He used his pre-Christmas meeting with the press, however, to issue an ominous warning that suggests he’s not entirely taking a much-needed break during the holidays.
Støre stated that it wasn’t his intention “to create a worrisome Christmas but … on the way into 2022 we are facing a security- and political situation in Europe that hasn’t been so serious since 1989.” He was referring to how Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sending at least an estimated 100,000 troops to its border to Ukraine. He called it “depressing” that “war and confrontation on our continent is again possible, and can happen in and around Ukraine.”
Corona and high electricity rates clearly aren’t the only ongoing dark clouds on the horizon. He said his government “is taking this (the Russian threat) with the highest degree of seriousness.” Commentator Alstadheim noted that Støre forgot to say “Happy New Year,” but he’ll have another opportunity when the prime minister’s annual New Year’s address is broadcast nationally on the evening of January 1.