September 5, 2013 1:28 pm

Erna Solberg eyes victory in Norway elections


Erna Solberg, leader of Norway's Conservative party

Erna Solberg would in many ways like to be Norway’s answer to Angela Merkel. The leader of the centre-right Conservatives and probable next Norwegian prime minister, Ms Solberg is an admirer of the German chancellor, to whom she bears a passing resemblance. “She’s a talented woman [and] a role model,” Ms Solberg said last year.

But the campaign ahead of Monday’s parliamentary elections in Norway has emulated Ms Merkel’s rise to the chancellorship in 2005 in deeper ways than merely having centre-right women as central characters.

Both faced charismatic centre-left leaders – Jens Stoltenberg in Norway and Gerhard Schröder in Germany – who had governed for two terms.

Both were outsiders from places away from their parties’ traditional power bases, with Ms Solberg coming from Norway’s west coast not Oslo and Ms Merkel from eastern Germany. And both let a big lead slip in the polls, with Ms Solberg’s party trailing Mr Stoltenberg’s governing Labour party after being ahead earlier in the summer.

The good news for Ms Solberg is that unlike Ms Merkel – who faced a night of electoral agony in 2005 as she practically tied with Mr Schröder – the Conservatives seem set to govern as its likely coalition partners are polling far ahead of Labour’s.

That would be vindication for her attempt to give the Conservatives a broader appeal than they historically have enjoyed in Norway, one of the richest countries in Europe thanks to oil, where they last came in first place in an election in 1924.

“Solberg has transformed the party, as it used to have a very ideological rhetoric on financial markets: the private sector is best. She has changed it from a party that is formed from the elite in Oslo to one more focused on the west of Norway, where the big industry is,” says Frithjof Jacobsen, a political commentator who is writing a book about Ms Solberg on the campaign trail.

Ms Solberg, who comes from the western merchant city of Bergen where her father ran a local bus company, became an MP at the age of 28 in 1989 and she soon served on a commission to determine what to do with Norway’s military after the cold war.

She earned the nickname “Jern-Erna” or “Iron Erna” when as a minister in the last Conservative government she refused to become involved in asylum disputes, and it is a tag her team have been keen to play down in the current campaign.

In an interview at her party’s central Oslo headquarters overlooking the National Theatre, Ms Solberg sounds concerned about how the country’s dominant oil sector could be crowding out other industries and says she wants to help business.

“As long as we are one of the most expensive countries to produce in, we should focus on cutting costs that directly and indirectly weigh on business,” she says.

Her priorities for her first 100 days will, she adds, be focused on education – in particular improving science and mathematics teaching – cutting queues in healthcare, and investment in infrastructure.

She has also proposed tax cuts and big changes in some state-owned groups: the Conservatives are weighing up whether to split the $750bn oil fund – the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund – and how quickly to privatise several companies.

“The future of Norway isn’t about competing on being the cheapest but the most innovative. We have an expensive welfare state and the only answer to continue that way is to become more competitive, especially on knowledge,” she says.

Those that know her best say she values hard work over flashiness. “She’s a politician with a very strong will and with a very high work capacity,” says Svein Flåtten, a Conservative MP.

Mr Jacobsen, a columnist at VG newspaper, says: “She has a keen mind and eye for details and facts. She is patient. She puts a price on long, thorough work . . . Her style is a long, sluggish fight that you win at the very end.”

Solberg has transformed the party . . . that is formed from the elite in Oslo to one more focused on the west of Norway, where the big industry is

- Frithjof Jacobsen, political commentator

But perhaps her toughest hour came after the last elections in 2009 when the Conservatives were relegated to third place and many expected her to resign. She faced her critics down and after big gains in 2011 local elections her nickname had changed to “Erna-Stjerna”, Erna the star.

If she is one, she is a reluctant one unlike Mr Stoltenberg. Mr Jacobsen tells of Ms Solberg – who says she likes to wind down by playing the mobile game Candy Crush Saga – walking down a street in her home town last month when suddenly people in front of the merchant houses shouted out “Erna, Erna”.

“Her advisers poked her and said: ‘wave at them’. She did and the people stood up and applauded her. You suddenly sensed her feeling: I’m a regular girl from Bergen and I’m going to become prime minister,” he says.

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