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Sunday, May 26, 2024

New restart for Norway’s government

NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had to replace more of his ministers, after yet another one let him down. He clearly hopes his new line-up can remain intact until next year’s national election, which he also still hopes to win.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre posed outside the Royal Palace Friday afternoon with his new ministers (from left) Marianne Sivertsen Næss in charge of fisheries, Cecilie Myrseth in charge of business and trade and Jan Christian Vestre taking over the demanding role of health minister. PHOTO: Møst

Støre was widely regarded as a brilliant foreign minister when NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister from 2005-2013. Støre has faced huge challenges, scandals, disappointment and criticism, though, since becoming prime minister himself in 2021. He’s most recently been viewed as a weak leader but now, after having to replace half his cabinet over the past two years, he may finally have a more reliable team.

The latest changes in Støre’s cabinet came on Friday, a week after he effectively had to fire his health minister from his own Labour Party, Ingvild Kjerkol. She had become the second of Støre’s ministers to be accused in January of plagiarizing her master’s degree thesis. Kjerkol’s government colleague, Sandra Borch of the Center Party, had abruptly resigned over the same charges just two days before Kjerkol landed in trouble, too.

Kjerkol, though, vigorously denied any cheating and Støre let her hang on, pending the results of Nord University’s re-examination of her thesis. It turned out to be “brutal,” in Kjerkol’s own words, and Støre ultimately if reluctantly had to demand her resignation because she’d lost the confidence of many within the health care and research sector.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre seemed full of resolve on Friday, after deciding to replace his errant health minister with one of the enthusiastic members of his cabinet, Jan Christian Vestre, fresh off the jet from a busy week of drumming up business and trade for Norway in California. PHOTO: Møst

Støre’s decision that it would be “extremely difficult” for Kjerkol “to carry out the ongoing, demanding work of a health minister” was later praised by various commentators. It was the first time, they claimed, that Støre had clearly showed who was boss in the government. Several have noted that Kjerkol herself had appeared arrogant and lacked humility by continuing to defend her thesis and refusing to resign voluntarily like other government colleagues had done. That made it all the more difficult for Støre to replace a party colleague who still has strong support in her home region of Trøndelag.

But he did, and that raised some Labour Party hopes that Kjerkol’s departure may mark a turning point, both for Støre’s government and for the party’s dismal results in public opinion polls. Støre has lost half of his ministers from both Labour and Center since forming his first government in October 2021, which got off to a rough start and went downhill from there. They’ve had to leave after landing in various conflicts of interest or other scandal.

Now Støre has a new line-up, moving his highly enthusiastic business and trade minister, Jan Christian Vestre, over to the health ministry to replace Kjerkol. Støre himself was moved from the foreign ministry to take over the tough health minister’s role during the final years of Stoltenberg’s government, sparking comments in Oslo that Støre is now grooming Vestre to be Labour’s future prime minister candidate. Vestre, who comes from an entrepreneurial family and has first-hand experience with business issues, already is a deputy leader of the party and often called its “crown prince” who may become Labour’s prime minister candidate after Støre.

“He’s a strong and hard-working leader, (health) is an area that affects everyone and the role demands hard work,” said Støre at a press conference Friday afternoon. When faced with having to replace Kjerkol, Vestre was simply the best candidate in his opinion.

Former Trade Minister Jan Christian Vestre is shown here earlier this week in California, where he led a business delegation with Crown Prince Haakon aimed at drumming up more business for Norway. He’s shown here with California Governor Gavin Newsom, who’s emerged as a potential US presidential candidate for the Democratic Party after current US President Joe Biden. PHOTO: NFD/Innovation Norway/Tom Hansen

Replacing Vestre as trade minister is Labour’s Cecilie Myrseth, who was the government’s fisheries minister until Friday afternoon. Business, trade, fisheries and ocean issues are all part of the same ministry, so the transition should be relatively smooth for Myrseth, who’s already familiar with many of the issues at hand. “She has a great ability to tackle problems,” said Støre, adding that he’s “known her for years” and has great confidence in her abilities.

Myrseth, who comes from Nordland, has been replaced as fisheries minister by Marianne Sivertsen Næss, currently a Member of Parliament from Hammerfest in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark, where seafood and fishing are important industries. Næss was smiling from ear to ear when Støre and his three new ministers walked out of the Royal Palace after being formally appointed to their new roles by Crown Prince Haakon. The crown prince and Vestre had both just returned from a busy week on the US West Coast, promoting Norwegian industry, green technology and even prison management issues.

Well-wishers were on hand to congratulate the new ministers with flowers as they take on their new duties. PHOTO: Møst

There were some signs of jet lag but also enthusiasm and smiles not just from Vestre. “I think we now have a strong new team,” Støre said, noting that it’s 500 days until the next national election. He also made a point of thanking Kjerkol for the work she did as health minster, in a clear attempt to mend fences. She’ll return to her seat in Parliament and fully expects to continue her political career.

The new ministers all face tough issues ahead, not least Vestre. He’ll now take over proposed reform and further liberalization of Norway’s abortion law, which the Labour-led government wants to make freely available to all women up to the 18th week of pregnancy. Vestre will also need to handle new and controversial hospital projects along with expensive rehabilitation of existing hospitals, and he’s already been challenged by trade union leaders who want to limit privatization of the health care sector. Instead of hiring in temporary health care personnel through employment agencies, the unions want more full-time positions in the public sector.

There’s no question that Vestre, Myrseth and Næss will need to hit the ground running in their new ministerial positions. “There’s been a lot of shifting around, but maybe this cabinet will last clear through to the election,” said Lars Nehru Sand, a political commentator for state broadcaster NRK. “It’s important to have some stable management.” Berglund



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