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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Political drama deepens around Solberg and her husband

Two new surveys are sending mixed signals, as political drama continues to swirl around former prime minister Erna Solberg and her Conservative Party (Høyre). Her future as one of Norway’s top politicians also remains unclear, with one professor suggesting that Solberg has been “grossly negligent” in carrying out her duties.

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her husband Sindre Finnes remain caught in a storm of controversy over his stock trading while she was in office from 2013 to 2021. His active investing in Norwegian companies landed her in a series of conflicts of interest, of which she claims to have been unaware. PHOTO: SMK/Eirin Larsen

A majority of Norwegians, meanwhile, don’t seem to believe Solberg’s claims that she revealed her husband’s questionable and extensive stock trading as quickly as possible, but not until Friday September 15, after local elections were held on September 11. A new survey shows that fully 60 percent lack confidence in how both Solberg and her party responded to questions about the thousands of times he bought and sold stock in Norwegian companies that could be affected by her government’s policies.

The questions tied to media reports about his trading had been flying since late August, but also weeks before that when another top Norwegian politician, Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, landed in similar trouble. Huitfeldt’s husband had also been trading shares in many of the same companies as Solberg’s husband Sindre Finnes, subjecting her to conflicts of interest, too.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) also reported on Friday that both Finnes and Solberg took time to attend a dinner party held at the home of the publisher and former polar explorer Erling Kagge on September 13. Solberg arrived late at the party, that honoured Norwegian mountain climber Kristin Harila and was also attended by the head of Norway’s Oil Fund Nicolai Tangen and TV host Anne Lindmo among other celebrities. It was held two days after Solberg’s Conservatives had won local elections, and two days before she tearfully blamed her husband for not informing her of his troublesome investment activity.

What’s worst for Solberg now are all the ongoing questions over why she never questioned her husband herself while he actively traded shares in companies including Norsk Hydro, defense contractor Kongsberg, various salmon producers and mining firms, and shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen. In the latter case, reports DN, Solberg had even taken part in a video promoting Wallenius Wilhelmsen, and shipowner Thomas Wilhelmsen had contributed NOK 300,000 to her Conservative party 10 days later. Solberg claims she was not aware her husband at one point held shares in the Wilhelmsen-controlled shipping firm worth more than NOK 500,000.

More such cases have been emerging in Norwegian media almost daily for the past few weeks. Newspaper Klassekampen has reported how Finnes invested NOK 180,000 in Kongsberg, for example, just a few days before Solberg’s government struck a deal with Kongsberg to service Norway’s new F35 fighter jets. Two days later, Finnes reportedly sold the Kongsberg shares at a profit.

Klassekampen and other media have also reported how Finnes was investing in Hydro while Solberg’s government was striking deals with the large, partly state-owned company over its ownership of hydroelectricity from power plants in Røldal and Suldal. Solberg was aware her husband was trading Hydro stock, just not how much. She never questioned him about details of his holdings, though, or how large they were.

Solberg and Finnes in happier days, during Christmas holidays at the prime minister’s residence in 2019. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Business news service E24 has reported that Finnes owned shares valued at more than NOK 100,000 in more than 45 companies while his wife was prime minister. Her impartiality was thus impaired, but she now uses the same defense as Foreign Minister Huitfeldt, that she was “unknowingly partial” and (as Huitfeldt has told the Parliament’s disciplinary committee) that “it’s nearly impossible to identify all relevant decisions and any connection they may have to my husband’s individual share transactions.”

Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday, though, that Solberg “should have been more awake herself” and that she did not address her husband’s investing as she should have. Jan Fridthjof Bernt, a law professor at the University of Bergen, has made similar claims.

“This case is a catastrophe for Solberg, because it reveals a government leader who didn’t have control over what was going on in her closest circles,” Bernt told DN last week. “She has in all probability been grossly negligent.” He was referring to numerous other reports of how her husband invested in salmon producers while Solberg’s government was considering new taxes on the fish farming industry that were not imposed.

Eivind Smith, a law professor at the University of Oslo, told Klassekampen that it was Solberg’s duty for eight years to collect more information about her husbands investments, and whether they presented conflicts of interest. “Access to such information was there all the time,” he noted, adding that Solberg needs to answer why she didn’t pursue it.

Other professors and legal experts are raising the same question, with Peggy Brønn at business school BI telling newspaper Dagsavisen that she thinks it will be difficult for Solberg to continue in politics and run for the prime minister’s office again in 2025. She noted how “skeletons keep falling out of the closet” and that Solberg “may need to sacrifice her career” because of her failure to evaluate her impartiality over two terms in office.

“Norwegians will need to decide whether they have confidence in her,” Brønn told Dagsavisen, “but right now, with all this going on, it’s highly probable that Norwegians have had enough of poor behaviour of politicians and their spouses.”

The recent survey suggests voters are indeed unhappy with Solberg, while  another survey conducted for Aftenposten and NRK shows voters still supporting her Conservative Party itself. It won 27.6 percent of the vote at the national level, confirming its position as Norway’s largest party, with Labour at 21 percent. Norway’s other eight smaller parties divvied up the rest among themselves.

Evy Joly, the Norwegian lawyer and judge who dealt with major corruption cases in France, told Klassekampen that she thinks Solberg should resign as leader of the Conservative Party and its candidate for prime minister. “It’s sad but irrelevant that she has been cheated (by her husband, who knew his stock trading could compromise his wife) or that she’s sorry about it,” Joly said. “As a politically exposed person she is responsible for making sure none of those closest to her can use her position for their own gain.” Solberg’s husband has earned an estimated NOK 1.8 million on his stock trading.

The Parliament’s disciplinary committee asked Solberg this week for a written account of her situation and how many conflicts of interest she actually landed in during her two terms in office. That may be difficult to produce but one member said it “provides a golden opportunity for Erna Solberg to lay all her cards on the table.” Hearings on the issue will be held in November.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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