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Monday, June 24, 2024

Erna Solberg will try to carry on

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg is relieved she and her husband have avoided a police investigation of his troublesome stock trading, but claims she’s still sorry it landed her in various conflicts of interest. Her own troubles aren’t over, as she and several other top politicians face a parliamentary hearing next week.

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg remains a Member of Parliament and still faces questioning next week but the parliament’s disciplinary committee. PHOTO: Stortinget

“Right now I’m filled with new energy,” Solberg said at a press conference on Friday, just after the Norwegian police’s economic crimes unit announced it had found no grounds for an investigation into any illegal insider trading. Solberg is the leader of Norway’s Conservative Party and thus its candidate for prime minister in 2025, but her political future is now uncertain.

Solberg herself added that “we’ll have to wait and see how this goes. I take seriously what this case is all about, that I have dealt with issues I shouldn’t have because Sindre (her husband, Sindre Finnes) had traded stock I didn’t know about.” Several law professors and others have also accused her of gross negligence for failing to monitor her husband’s investment activity, or following up warnings that it could create conflicts of interest.

It emerged just after local elections in September that Finnes had engaged in thousands of share transactions while Solberg was prime minister from 2013 to 2021. His investments in companies like Norsk Hydro, Nordic Mining, Kongsberg and many others meant that his financial gains damaged his wife’s impartiality regarding her government’s policies and decisions, and have led to some calls for her to resign as the Conservatives’ leader.

Solberg has made it clear, however, that she wasn’t giving up nor would she divorce Finnes over the scandal. “I am still married to Sindre Finnes and have plans to remain married,” she said at the press conference on Friday. “I can’t divorce to get political power.” She admitted to many “tough weeks” on the home front, but said she’s still motivated to remain in politics. Asked whether she and Finnes could live in the prime minister’s residence again, she said it would “mean that Sindre can’t trade shares and it would be controlled that he doesn’t.” His lawyer, meanwhile, stressed that Finnes has also been through an ordeal because of his stock trading, which was “wrong” and amounted to “a breach of trust” towards his wife.

Former Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt has also been the subject of massive media coverage this autumn after she admitted to conflicts of interest herself. She was later replaced. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Several other top Norwegian politicians have also been caught in conflicts of interest recently, including members of the current Labour-Center government. Anniken Huitfeldt was replaced as foreign minister after her husband had also traded shares in defense contractor Kongsberg and other firms that impaired her impartiality. She has also avoided a police investigation, however, while former government minister Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party is under investigation after also resigning his government post.

Pål K Lønseth, chief of Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim, acknowledged criticism that his team had handled the three cases of troublesome investing differently. He cited differences among the cases themselves, stressing, for example, there were no signs Solberg or Huitfeldt had violated confidentialty clauses tied to the their work or contributed to any insider trading. In Moe’s case, he has also engaged in stock trading himself, while the investing that caused trouble for Solberg and Huitfeldt was carried out by their spouses without their knowledge.

There’s no question the cases have damaged the politicians’ credibility. While Huitfeldt had to resign her post, Solberg now has to rely on her party’s confidence in her. It seemed to remain fairly strong after the threat of a police probe was dropped, but some party officials and elected Conservatives criticize how both Solberg and the party have handled her case. Many were also relieved, including the Conservatives’ leader in Agder, Harald Furre, but he told state broadcaster NRK that the scandal has put a damper on the party’s otherwise good results in the last election. He indicated the mood was now good, “but we have to wait and see regarding party leadership and the way forward.”

The past several weeks of scandal and constant media reports of new and questionable stock trading by Solberg’s husband has clearly cost the Conservative Party already. It remains Norway’s largest, but a new public opinion poll released this week showed its weakest result in nearly two years, with just 24.6 percent of the vote. That’s down from 32 percent in March. Labour fell to 20.2 percent.

The scandals involving no less than four government ministers plus Solberg (who remains a Member of Parliament and head of the opposition) will come to a head on Tuesday. That’s when the Parliament’s disciplinary committee has called them all in to a hearing along with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. They’ve already answered lots of questions in writing but now face grilling over their conflicts of interest that also involve how two of Støre’s ministers appointed some friends and acquaintances to state boards or other state positions.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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