A Norwegian first

Perhaps it's the grandeur of their fjords and soaring snow-capped mountains, the crispness of their nighttime air, or the distances between their rural communities. But Norwegians, with their Viking past, have always had a fondness for the epic -- tempered by a no-nonsense strain of hard realism. Now, Gro Harlem Brundtland is faced with calling on a history of epic determination as she becomes Norway's 22nd prime minister and the first woman ever to hold that post in her country.

Foremost for Mrs. Brundtland, of course, is warding off what many political analysts believe could be a defeat later this year of Norway's ruling Labor Party by a conservative coalition -- the first time, if that occurs, in 60 years. Labor's showing in next September's national elections, which until this week was expected to be dismal, is enhanced by the selection of Mrs. Brundtland.

In terms of grit and political acumen Norway's new prime minister is in many ways like Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Politically, the comparison ends. Both women have the primary occupation of dealing with a late 20th-century welfare state. But Mrs Thatcher, a conservative, is trying to dismantle it as much as possible; Mrs. Brundtland, a social democrat, wants to make it more manageable, more efficient.

Indeed the basic framework of Norway's welfare state is not really in joepardy, no matter what happens in mid-September. Norway's offshore oil wealth provides a firm foundation for the economy, and most Norwegians are relatively comfortable with their life style.It is the tone and administration of government which would likely be different given a Labor defeat, with conservatives calling for better management of basic services. The task for Mrs. Brundtland, who herself has a background in public health (including a graduate degree from Harvard University), will be to convince voters that administration can be as effective under Labor as the conservatives.

If Mrs. Brundtland has an immediate challenge, it lies in somehow forging links with the left wing of the Labor Party, which has vehemently opposed the storing of US weapons in central Norway, increases in NATO's defense budget, and a planned hydroelectric complex in that nation's northern regions. Former Prime Minister Odvar Nordli, who recently resigned for health reasons after five years in office, had come under increasing criticism from his party's left.

Labor, in fact, has been able to hang on with only a slender one-vote majority in Parliament, although its national security policies have garnered strong support from conservatives.

Putting the year-end election to the side, however, Norwegians can take pride in their new prime minister, who joins Mrs. Thatcher, President Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland, and Simone Veil as the fourth woman of commanding position in Western Europe. Is there a new trend here? It would no doubt be perplexing to those grand Viking warriors of Norway's early history.

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