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Jens and Erna: Norway politics' odd couple

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Jens and Erna: Norway politics' odd couple
Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Erna Solberg (right) at the start of a TV debate - Heiko Junge / Scanpix NTB
08:24 CEST+02:00
Ahead of next Monday's general election, AFP profiles Norway's Prime Minister and the rival likely to replace him.
One is hailed for steering Norway through its worst post-war tragedy. The other is known as "Iron Erna". Together, they have
dominated the campaign ahead of Monday's election in the Nordic country.
 
Famously telegenic, incumbent Labour Party Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, 54, faces off against his Conservative rival Erna Solberg, and looks set to lose.
   
Judging from the pre-election opinion polls, 52-year-old Solberg is all but certain to don the mantle of power after Monday's parliamentary election.
   
Stoltenberg has not fallen out with voters over any particular issue, but after eight years with the same government, many simply pine for change.
 
"My biggest challenge is that people are happy," Stoltenberg, whose sky-coloured gaze is crowned by a salt-and-pepper mane, said in June. "But I feel I still have much to do."
 
In the job since 2005, Stoltenberg has triggered widespread admiration for the way he has steered the Norwegian economy through its worst crisis of the post-war era.
 
But he has also had to preside over the worst shock in modern Norwegian history: the massacre of 77 people carried out by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011.
 
Stoltenberg rose to the occasion, finding exactly the right words to help the nation come to terms with the sudden, numbing grief. The horror which had specifically targeted his government and party would be met with "even more democracy" and "even more humanity", he said.
   
The message set the tone after the tragedy, showing the nation how the best reaction was one devoid of hatred, and in return, his popularity reached the highest level ever.
   
However, the ratings boost that he got was ephemeral, and as the aftermath of the tragedy threw light on the dysfunctional aspects of his administration, his image took a hit.
   
With a diplomat father who eventually became foreign minister, Stoltenberg was born into a family steeped in politics, and politics has also taken up most of his adult life.
   
As a teenager he was close to Maoist circles, vehemently opposed to NATO and the European Community, and a participant in protests at the US embassy in Oslo against the war in Vietnam.
   
Equipped with political street cred, and with a degree in economics, he entered parliament in 1991, better prepared than most legislative novices.
 
He rose fast, as expected. Following stints as minister of energy and finance, he was made prime minister in 2000, on the day after his 41st
birthday, to become Norway's youngest ever head of government.
   
He was in this position for only 18 months, but still long enough to set in motion the partial privatisation of two state-owned heavyweights, oil group
Statoil and telecoms operator Telenor.
   
Back in power since 2005, Stoltenberg can boast of having led the oil-rich country through the severe economic crisis with no major damage suffered.
 
But the Norwegians are tired. Eight years in government is exceptional, even in this politically stable Scandinavian kingdom.
   
Enter Erna Solberg, a big, blonde woman from the old Hanseatic city of Bergen, rallying voters with a call for a "new course". Promising to keep the welfare state intact, she also vows to cut taxes, spend more on infrastructure, and open up the health care sector to private
players.
   
Like her rival, she has spent most of her life in politics, sitting in parliament ever since she entered in 1989, only interrupted by four years as
minister of local government from 2001 to 2005.
   
In that capacity she was in charge of immigration, her tough handling earning her the nickname "Iron Erna".
 
Having rounded some of her former sharp edges and renewed the reputation of a party once considered slightly stuffy, she appears to have revived a penchant among Norwegian voters for occasionally leaning to the right.
   
If she wins Monday's election, she will be the second woman to head a government in Norwegian history, after Labour's Gro Harlem Brundtland in the 1980s.
   
But her real test will only come later. Likely to rule an alliance stretching from the populist right to the centre, her challenge will be to
find unity on issues such as immigration and environment, where views are notoriously hard to reconcile.
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