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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Pressure grows on Solberg to resign

Erna Solberg still had support from the board of Norway’s Conservative Party as the week began, but faces rising pressure to resign both as party leader and the Conservatives’ candidate for prime minister. Her failure to question and halt her husband’s active stock trading during all of her two former terms in office now threatens both her party and her own long political career.

The Norwegian Conservative Party’s leader and prime minister candidate, Erna Solberg, speaking here at the party’s annual national meeting in May. The party’s slogan translates to “Opportunities for everyone,” but her own have now faded. PHOTO: Høyre/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

“The Conservatives have a prime minister candidate who now faces a criminal investigation,” wrote Hanne Skartveit, commentator for newspaper VG. Skartveit was referring to how Norway’s economic crimes unit is evaluating an investigation into how Solberg’s husband created conflicts of interest for Solberg with his stock trading, and may have been privvy to inside information.

“It’s difficult to see how Erna Solberg can survive this politically,” added Skartveit. Solberg has also been called into a hearing by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee later this fall.

Top politicians at Norway’s other non-socialist parties that shared government power with Solberg’s Conservatives from 2013 to 2021, have called on Solberg to be more open about her husband Sindre Finnes’ extensive trading of shares in Norwegian companies, the prices of which could be affected by government policies and action. Solberg finally disclosed, four days after her party swept local elections around the country, that her husband was behind thousands of transactions on which he earned NOK 1.8 million, and created numerous conflicts of interest along the way.

Sindre Finnes (in blue jacket) was often by his wife’s side when she was prime minister, like here at a torchlight rally against racism in 2019. He has also turned out to be an active investor with financial implications that have put his wife in a difficult position. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Kaja Schill Godager

Skartveit and many others, including the Conservatives’ deputy leader Henrik Asheim, stress that it was her husband who betrayed her trust and set off both personal and political crises. “But in the end, it’s Erna Solberg who’s ultimately responsible,” Skartveit wrote.

Frithjof Jacobsen, political editor at Dagens Næringsliv (DN), agreed, noting how responsibility is “a fundamental principle in the Norwegian democracy.” DN, the country’s leading business newspaper with an editorial policy that often supports the Conservatives’ policies, further noted how government ministers are held responsible for everything within their ministry, even when they haven’t been aware of or personally involved in matters that cause trouble.

“How can Erna Solberg lead a new government if she excuses herself from responsibility in this issue and insists on running for prime minister again?” Jacobsen wrote. “How could she ever hold other ministers responsible for conflicts of interest and violations of regulations?”

Marie Sneve Martinussen, leader of the Reds Party, said on national radio Tuesday morning that Solberg “has misled the Norwegian people.” She thinks all members of the government and their spouses should be banned from stock trading, as do several professors, financiers and economists.

Several cases of Solberg’s husband’s profiteering have come to light since last week. In one case, he dumped shares just before his wife shut down Norway when the Corona crisis began. In another he bought shares in some Norwegian salmon producers when Solberg’s government opted against taxing them on the use of fjords for their fish farming. DN has reported how Finnes bought shares in oil companies while Solberg was negotiating tax incentives for the companies during the Corona crisis.

More and more details of her husband’s extensive market trading over the past 10 years are emerging, and that she knew more about it than she admitted to on Friday. DN published a detailed timeline on Tuesday dating back to October 2013, when she was forming her first government coalition with the Progress Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Administrators at the Office of the Prime Minister warned both Solberg and her husband about potential conflicts of interest over his stock trading, and advised Solberg to seek advice from both the finance- and justice ministries. She didn’t follow that advice, and her husband continued his investing in individual Norwegian companies even though he said he’d shift over to strictly investment funds instead. He didn’t.

Sindre Finnes has generally kept a low profile over the years, but now he’s put his wife’s political career at risk. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) began raising questions about his investments as early as October 2014, prompting him to send a message of concern to the prime minister’s office. NRK published a story on November 6, 2014 about some of Finnes’ trading, also reporting that Finnes didn’t want to talk about specific investments. Two month later Finnes informed the prime minister’s office, according to DN, that he’d sold off the shares NRK reported on, but stock registers at the time showed that he continued to invest in 14 other companies.

Solberg could have cracked down on his investing at that point, but didn’t do so. Among the companies in which her husband bought stock was Norsk Hydro, one of Norway’s biggest industrial firms that’s also partially state-owned. Solberg now admits that put her in a conflict of interest, not least since she often visited Hydro. She defended that to newspaper VG, saying that was “completely natural for a prime minister of Norway to do.”

Hans Andreas Limi, deputy leader of the Progress Party and one of her former government partners, told VG that Solberg should have stopped her husband from investing in Hydro. “She knew he bought and sold Hydro shares and should have simply said ‘stop it, because you can’t do that and it can be very unfortunate. You’re putting me in a bad position, because then I would need to abstain from all issues involve one of the most important industrial companies we have in Norway.'” But she didn’t do that.

Norwegian media have also gained access to correspondence between Finnes and the Office of the Prime Minister in 2016, when Finnes sent an email to its top administrator Heidi Heggenes informing her that newspaper Dagbladet “was asking about and digging into my stock market investments (and messing with their values and accounting) and they’re asking questions that are impossible for Erna and me to answer in a sensible manner.” He wrote that “regardless of what Dagbladet might report,” he was “preparing to transfer most of his shares to share funds” over which he’d have no control. Finnes nonetheless continued to trade in individual shares.

Commentators claim that this and several other incidents over the years indicate Finnes should have known how troublesome his investments could be, and that Solberg was aware of both his share trading and the risks involved. Now she’s blaming him for revealing the depth and extent of his market activity, and claims she wasn’t aware of his financial gains.

DN‘s historical record of Finnes’ trading extended through 2019, when Dagbladet also reported that Finnes still held stock in companies including Hydro, shipping line Wallenius Wilhelmsen, media firm Schibsted and Western Bulk Chartering among others. He even stated at the time that he thought it was “a good thing to invest in Norway’s companies and Norwegian business on the Oslo Stock Exchange.”

Solberg also faced questions this past summer, when the local election campaign was underway and several ministers in the current Labour-Center government ran into trouble over their own share trading or their spouse’s. Finnes was still active in the stock market, and both newspaper Finansavisen and business news service E24 were reporting on Finnes’ stock trading. At that time, Solberg claimed to have “adequate information on which companies and branches” her husband had invested in, without elaborating on concrete transactions.

DN itself reported at least 74 transactions while she had been prime minister. Three days before the election, Solberg said she “would ask Sindre to compile an overview over his share trading while I was prime minister.” It turned out to involve more than 3,000 transactions. Then Solberg stopped answering questions, until tearfully acknowledging (after the election) all the trading she claims she didn’t know about.

Some critics claim Solberg and her party intentionally withheld more information until after the election. The head of Norway’s biggest trade union confederation and Labour’s defeated former head of Oslo’s city government even insinuated that the media itself withheld information, claims that quickly were retracted amidst loud complaints and evidence of all the media questioning that went unanswered.

There’s no question that all the coverage has spoiled the Conservatives’ election victories last week, hurt the party itself and further eroded public confidence in their elected officials. DN commentator Eva Grinde wrote on Tuesday that there’s now only a “microscopic” chance Solberg will survive politically. Skartveit of VG thinks it will have huge consequences on Norwegian politics in general: If Solberg has to withdraw as the Conservatives’ prime minister candidate, it can set off a “generation shift” in the form of a younger Conservatives’ candidate, although neither current deputy leader is viewed as experienced enough. The Conservatives’ former defense- and foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has emerged as a possible replacement for Solberg.

That in turn could prompt the Labour Party to think twice about the chances of their own embattled prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, heading into the next national election in 2025. Støre and Solberg, both in their 60s, may have to step down and make way for new and younger candidates as well, preferably without spouses active in the stock market. Berglund



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