Prime Minister too depressed to run country

Norway: Leader cries off duties as his father tells of son's sleepless nights caused by unfair criticism
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The Independent Online
"LUCKY NORWAY", say envious neighbours in Scandinavia. The country has oil and gas galore, bucketfuls of fish and plenty of scenery. No one really needs to work, and still everyone is rich.

Lucky also to rank among world leaders in terms of the per capita number of psychologists: things are not going too well at the moment.

The price of oil is plunging, the national currency is on the skids, mortgage rates are going through the roof, and amid all this the Prime Minister has gone on a week's sick leave with an illness only a psychologist can fix.

Kjell Magne Bondevik, an affable Lutheran pastor pushed into the vacant prime ministerial chair last year, just could not take the strain. On Monday his office announced that the leader was suffering from a "depressive reaction to stress".

Stunned Norwegians, well-accustomed to feeble excuses for avoiding work - sunny weather is deemed a reasonable one - had to find out the rest yesterday from Mr Bondevik's 93-year-old father.

"We noticed something was wrong in the last two weeks," Johannes Bondevik told the daily Aftenposten.

His son could not get to sleep, and seemed generally shattered.

"He has not only had a great deal of pressure from work, he's also had little understanding from the opposition, and was subjected to a lot of unfair criticism ... He cannot manage all of this on his own," Bondevik Senior explained. A week's leave, the psychologists explained in the nation's newspapers, would suggest that the PM was perhaps not clinically depressed, merely down. The blues may have been brought on by his work-load, or by the sudden plunge in his popularity in recent weeks.

The three-party minority coalition including Mr Bondevik's Christian People's Party was grappling with the budget as the currency crisis struck. Normally, balancing the books in Norway does not require great skill, but negotiations this time were bogged down by quarrels over the Prime Minister's pet project.

At the weekend it became apparent that his plan to give families with toddlers the equivalent of pounds 300 a month "child-minder benefit" would have to be shelved. This blow, rather than the seventh successive rise in interest rates and speculative raids on the krone, seems to have knocked the 50- year-old Mr Bondevik off his feet.

Norwegians digested the news with sympathy, and there were words of comfort from his political adversaries. "It shouldn't matter," declared Thorbjorn Jagland, leader of the Labour Party. "One must be allowed to be sick in this country." Even Karl I Hagen, leader of the far-right Progress Party, applauded Mr Bondevik's decision "to be more open about mental suffering".

But there were also voices suggesting that anyone who could not stand the heat should get out of the political kitchen. "You have to be able to take political pressure," said Odvar Nordli, who in 1981 was forced to resign as Labour prime minister by a combination of splitting headaches and debilitating party splits.

Not even tolerant Norway, Mr Nordli hinted darkly, would put up with a PM on permanent sick leave: "It's not a problem that Kjell Magne Bondevik is taking a week off, but if he is going to be ill for a longer period, then you have to re- evaluate the situation."

If he should leave, parliament might still have to summon a psychologist. For the obvious successor is Mr Jagland, head of the biggest party. But he is still in a sulk and refusing to form a government, because a few thousand Labour voters snubbed him in the last elections.