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Friday, June 21, 2024

Solberg decides to ride out the storm

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg isn’t going to let scandal and her own conflicts of interest ruin her political career without a fight. She started the week by declaring she’s more motivated than ever to continue as leader of Norway’s Conservative Party (Høyre) and be its candidate for prime minister in 2025.

The Conservatives’ slogan translates to “Opportunities for everyone.” Now the party’s longtime leader Erna Solberg is getting another opportunity, too. PHOTO: Høyre/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

“I have said for the past eight weeks that I don’t believe in making decisions in the middle of a storm,” Solberg said. Now, after avoiding a police investigation into highly problematic stock trading by her husband, and getting through a hearing by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee last week, she wants to get back to the business of leading her party and even the country again.

“I feel I have received strong support (from the party), and that’s given me motivation to continue,” Solberg told state broadcaster NRK after a press conference Monday morning. She said she met “face to face” on Sunday with the Conservatives’ central board for the first time since admitting just after mid-term elections in September that she’d landed in conflicts of interest several times during her two terms as prime minister from 2013 to 2021. Her husband Sindre Finnes had traded thousands of shares in Norwegian companies, the value of which can be influenced by government policy, and generated profits of around NOK 1.7 million.

Solberg herself, meanwhile, had also failed to monitor her husband’s stock trading, or followed up on warnings about it. That led to harsh criticism from professors, legal experts and even some of the Conservatives’ biggest donors. Funds manager Jan Petter Sissener was among those saying just last week that Solberg should step down after roughly two decades as Conservatives leader: “I can’t see that she can move back into the prime minister’s residence with (her husband) Finnes,” Sissener told newspaper Klassekampen. “She’s not a candidate for me.”

A decidedly more defensive Solberg, after last week’s hearing conducted by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Several professors, economists and even stock brokers themselves have suggested Solberg was “grossly negligent” in not preserving impartiality as a top politician. Einar Lie at the University of Oslo noted how Finnes had lied to both Solberg and others, and withheld his investment activity, but stressed how Solberg herself remained responsible, also for her husband’s misdeeds. Commentators for newspapers on both the left and right have written volumes about how Solberg should have paid more attention to what was going on around her, and that she had shirked responsibility. Others, including Lars West Johnsen of Dagsavisen, suggested Solberg has two standards: “One for herself and another for everyone else.”

Her party, meanwhile, which has long billed Erna Solberg as their “star” and been slow to actively cultivate successors for her, seemed confused and uncertain. The Conservatives initially opted for a strategy of trying to protect Solberg and blame all the trouble on her husband. Henrik Asheim, a deputy leader of the party along with Tina Bru, engaged in several ruthless attacks on Finnes live on national radio and TV, while Finnes felt compelled to engage a defense attorney and firmly denied any illegal insider trading. State prosecutors later found no grounds for insider trading charges either. Solberg has said she has no intention of filing for divorce from Finnes.

Others in Høyre maintained “full confidence” in Solberg and wanted her to stay on. The Conservatives swept local elections in September and Solberg recently posed again for photos with the party’s scores of new mayors now in place all over the country.

Recent public opinion polls also indicate that the scandal around Solberg hasn’t hurt support for the Conservatives, albeit at a time when arch rival Labour leads one of the most unpopular Norwegian governments ever. Another new poll last week still ranked the Conservatives as Norway’s largest party, with support up nearly 3 points to hold 27.9 percent of the vote. Labour also gained, but holds just 21 percent, and its government partner, the Center Party, tumbled to just 5.3 percent.

The Conservatives could claim major election victories all over the country in September. Solberg has posed twice now for photos with the more than 100 Conservative politicians who are now mayors. PHOTO: Høyre/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

Asheim, the Conservatives’ deputy leader, joined Solberg at the press conference on Monday and gave her his full support. “Let there be no doubt: If there had been a broad wish to shift leaders in Høyre, it would have happened now.” There wasn’t, at least not within the party, and Solberg’s offers to resign if she’d lost support were rejected.

“We still believe she’s a plus for us, and we’re very glad Erna is motivated to carry on,” Asheim said, adding that many of those expressing confidence in Solberg think she has handled her problems “in an honest and open manner” that also has reinforced the party’s confidence in her.

Potential government partners, meanwhile, are far more reserved and want to wait until the parliamentary probe into her case is concluded. That isn’t expected until early next year.

Hans Andreas Limi, deputy leader of the conservative Progress Party that shared government power with the Conservatives for more than six years, said he wasn’t sure what’s behind Solberg’s and her party’s decision to exonerate her already, “but I think it’s part of an effort to kill off the entire case.” Grunde Almeland of the Liberal Party, which also ruled with Solberg’s Conservatives, stressed that her decision to carry on won’t influence the committee’s probe or its conclusion.

Need to ‘rebuild public confidence’
“I hope Solberg (and other current government ministers who’ve landed in conflicts of interest recently) understand the seriousness of violations to which they’ve admitted,” said Almeland, who leads the parliamentary probe. “There are many who need to work hard now to rebuild public confidence.”

The Greens Party wasn’t so forgiving, with its MP Lan Marie Berg claiming that she “can’t understand why the party and Erna aren’t taking on more responsibility to rebuild confidence in politicians.” She accused them of “just talking” and not taking responsibility for what happened during her eight years as prime minister. Three ministers in the current Labour-Center led government have all left office after landing in conflicts of interest themselves.

Seher Aydar of the Reds Party said she’s surprised Solberg has already decided to continue in her role, and run for prime minister again. “Erna Solberg didn’t have control over her own impartiality for eight years, nor has she taken responsibility for that, yet she still wants to move back into the prime minister’s residence,” Aydar told NRK. Committee members from both the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Left also said Solberg still need to rebuild confidence around her.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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