Monday

27th Sep 2021

Interview

Will Erna Solberg be the Nordic Merkel – winning a third term?

  • Erna Solberg (l) with Angela Merkel, here pictured in 2015. Both are female leaders of centre-right parties, adept at winning elections (Photo: Norwegian PM account/Flickr)

The polls are not in Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg's favour - but she still thinks she has a 50-50 chance of winning a third term in September.

"Just to give you a tip; don't start the interview by asking her about whether she will lose the election," the prime minister's press secretary tells EUobserver, minutes before Solberg was on the phone. She is tired of that question.

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  • Solberg runs her twitter account, in Norwegian, by herself. 'I am dyslexic, which Norwegians know, so they accept my tweets with my misspellings,' she says (Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org)

In that way she resembles Angela Merkel - strong in the belief that she will manage.

There are some other obvious similarities between Solberg and the German chancellor. They are both women prime ministers representing conservative parties, and they know how to win elections.

"I admire her ability to find good solutions," Solberg says, in a brief phone interview one late afternoon, in between campaigning and government meetings.

She highlighted Merkel's ability to find compromises among European leaders.

Solberg is the leader of Høyre, probably the most pro-EU party in Norway, and would not mind having a seat at the EU Council table.

But even where there are similarities between the two leaders, there are clear differences. "The political life in Norway and Germany is very different," Solberg says.

Dyslexic but twitter star

The 60-year old Solberg is married, with two children, and lives in Bergen and Oslo, after being an MP since 1989, party leader since 2004, and prime minister since 2013.

One of the differences is how Solberg presents herself on social media. She is everywhere, and the prime minister's family has opened the doors of their modest private home to the media.

And that is how Norwegians like it. Their political leaders should be this way; "ordinary people" with messy kitchens. That is far from the more-guarded Merkel.

Solberg says that she runs her twitter account, in Norwegian, by herself. For the more formal tweets in English, she gets some help from the staff.

"I am dyslexic, which Norwegians know, so they accept my tweets with my misspellings," she says.

A lot of her social media activity is connected to sports. She tries to motivate her favourite soccer team, Brann from her hometown Bergen, but with little success. They are at the bottom in the league.

Every time a Norwegian athlete that wins a medal in an international competition, she congratulates them on twitter if she can't do it in person.

This is the no-nonsense prime minister who has been riding high in the polls for years.

Fined for breaking Covid rules

Solberg's popularity was climbing even higher during the first year of the pandemic. But now her popularity is declining. There is pandemic fatigue, and the government's facing more and more pressure over its handling of the Covid crisis.

Solberg also made a critical misstep this winter when she invited too many family members to her 60th birthday party. She was fined 20,000 kroner [€2,000] for breaking lockdown rules.

In her eight years in office, Solberg has only had a majority government for one of them.

Early in 2020, the right wing Progress Party (Frp) left government, saying it was too "grey and boring." But they still provide support the government in parliament's budget process.

Looking forward to the elections Solberg says that she thinks the four-party centre-right bloc has a 50-50 chance to win.

That's a very optimistic prediction, according to the polls.

The website pollofpolls, a poll aggregator often cited in Norwegian media, currently gives the opposition 112 out of 169 seats. 85 seats are required to form a government. But the margins are small, with many of the smaller parties fighting to stay above the four-percent electoral threshold.

Modernised Norway?

So, what is prime minister Solberg's legacy?

She says the government has done what it promised: it modernised Norway. The country has gone through big shifts with crises like the declining price of oil, refugee crisis and now the pandemic. She points out that on her watch, Norway has spent more money than ever on railways and roads, and strengthened the educational system.

"Norway has become more competitive," she says.

Her critics would say that the government has increased the wealth gap, reduced the amount of police stations and other state services in rural areas, and has widened the distance between people and the center of power, which is likely to be a big issue in the election campaign.

'Green' but what about the oil?

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Norway opening its first oilfield, Ekofisk.

Now there are questions about the future of the Norwegian oil industry and how the country will thrive after fossil fuels.

"We will live off what we always have done, our fish, seafood, tourist industry, and different types of energy from hydro, wind or hydrogen. We need to be smarter, more efficient. A lot of the companies that are going to support us in the future, we don't know about yet," Solberg says.

Solberg does not feel there is a contradiction between Norway's role as a major oil and gas producer and the country's ambition to be a champion of fighting climate change. She looks forward to going to the Glasgow climate summit in November, if she is reelected.

Going abroad?

There is a life after the premiership. Solberg has combined numerous national positions with a strong commitment to global solutions for development, growth, and conflict resolution. Since 2016, Solberg has co-chaired the UN secretary general's advocacy group for the Sustainable Development Goals.

So – will she be looking for a top international job if she loses the election?

"No," she says: "I will go back to the parliament."

Author bio

Alf Ole Ask is EU correspondent for Energi og Klima, and a former Brussels and New York correspondent for Dagens Næringsliv and Aftenposten.

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