Newsmaker: After softening, "Iron Erna" set to become Norway's PM

OSLO Tue Sep 10, 2013 4:54am IST

Norway's main opposition leader Erna Solberg of Hoyre speaks to party members while waiting for the results of the general elections in Oslo September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stian Lysberg Solum/NTB Scanpix

Norway's main opposition leader Erna Solberg of Hoyre speaks to party members while waiting for the results of the general elections in Oslo September 9, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stian Lysberg Solum/NTB Scanpix

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OSLO (Reuters) - Erna Solberg, set to become Norway's next prime minister, has transformed herself from a tough-minded "Iron Erna" into a softer Conservative more caring about voters' jobs, health and schools.

Solberg, 52, even wrote a book in 2011 entitled "People, not Billions" that widened her appeal as leader of a right-wing party often criticised as more focused on tax cuts for the rich and businesses than on the welfare of ordinary Norwegians.

Her Conservative Party and three smaller centrist and right-wing allies won a majority in Norway's parliament on Monday when voters turned their back on eight years of centre-left rule under Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

Tears welled up in her eyes when she thanked her husband and two teenage children for their support in a victory speech before hundreds of supporters chanting "Erna! Erna!"

The win is a remarkable turnaround for a woman who had to fend off calls to resign in early 2009 when she was accused of being out of touch with voters in the Nordic nation, which is among the richest in the world thanks to offshore oil.

Solberg's 2013 election website has pictures of hearts and of her smiling as part of a four-pronged campaign for secure jobs, healthcare, education and better roads across a mountainous nation cut by fjords.

Her softer style is a far cry from the days when she was dubbed "Iron Erna" by the Norwegian media for tightening immigration rules as local government minister in a previous centre-right coalition from 2001-05.

SOUL-SEARCHING

"When journalists give you a nickname it's very difficult to get rid of it," she said of the label that echoes the "Iron Lady" nickname given to late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

She said that soul-searching after an election loss in 2005 prompted the start of a makeover.

"We thought that people would look upon us as care-taking and concerned with everyday life," she said. "But most people were seeing us as yes, good at running the economy, but not very interested in people's everyday life."

She will become Norway's first Conservative prime minister since Jan Syse in 1990 and the nation's second woman leader after Gro Harlem Brundtland, who first came to office in 1981 and led in three periods.

Born on January 24, 1961, Solberg grew up in Bergen, Norway's second biggest city after Oslo. She was popular among her fellow students but often got low grades from teachers who thought she talked too much in class and wrote poorly.

In her late teens she was diagnosed with dyslexia. The former girl scout leader went on to study political science at university, entered politics and was elected to parliament at the young age of 28.

Hard-working, Solberg showed a talent for handling complex legislation and in 2002 became the deputy to party leader Jan Petersen. She took over as party leader in 2004.

Terje Knutsen, a professor of political science at the university of Bergen, said Solberg was seen as "solid and dependable, a no-nonsense kind of person" even though so far she lacks the charisma of Stoltenberg.

Colleagues and family describe her as competitive. "She wants to win in all sorts of games, including against the children of the family," her sister Ingrid told TV2 television.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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