Bondevik, Kjell Magne

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Kjell Magne Bondevik

Norwegian politician Kjell Magne Bondevik (born 1947) twice served as prime minister of his country. An ordained minister who spent the majority of his career as a legislator, he attracted headlines around the world in 1998 when he took a brief leave of absence during his first term in office. He confessed that the pressures of his job as the leader of a fragile political coalition had brought on a stress-induced depression. Like many Norwegians, Bondevik retreated to his native land's magnificent rural landscape, where long walks near its mountains, lakes, and dramatic fjords quickly restored his equilibrium.

Bondevik was born on September 3, 1947, in Molde, a city on Norway's Romsdal peninsula along the Norwegian Sea. He was the nephew of Kjell Bondevik, who once headed the country's Kristelig Folkeparti or Christian People's Party, known by its Norwegian acronym KrF and in English by the letters CPP; the party is also sometimes called the Christian Democratic Party. Like its other political counterparts across Europe, Christian Democrats are social conservatives and believe the government should refrain from interference with economic matters. Its ideological opposite, the Labor Party, has won the majority of parliamentary elections in Norway since the 1920s.

Ordained Lutheran Minister

At the University of Oslo, where Bondevik studied theology, he joined the school's chapter of the Norwegian Young Christian Democrats, and eventually rose to chair the entire student political organization. He was first elected in 1973 to the Storting, as Norway's parliament is called, and rose within the party ranks to become the CPP's vice chair by 1975. During this time he completed his schooling as well, and was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1979. Four years later he was elected CPP chair. In the event the CPP won a majority in parliamentary elections, his position as head of the party would automatically make him prime minister, although Norway's monarch is responsible for officially designating the prime minister after elections.

Norway is a constitutional democracy officially known as the Kingdom of Norway. Its 4.5 million citizens enjoy what usually ranks as the world's highest standard of living. The country is the world's second largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia, and it is also the leader among European nations in natural gas production. Political, cultural, and economic life is centered in Oslo, where the 165-seat unicameral parliament, the Storting, meets. Norway shares a border with Sweden, with whom it was united for most of the nineteenth century. The royal house, headed by King Harald V (born 1937), was originally of German-Danish heritage, but has served as a symbol of national unity for Norway since the early twentieth century. Norwegian mon-archs are granted executive powers by the constitution, but they allow the Council of State—the prime minister and his cabinet—to exercise those rights. The country has had a longstanding rivalry with Sweden, and has twice voted in national referendums against joining the European Union (EU). Its border with the Soviet Union, however, prompted it to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the years following World War II.

The CPP had not ever won a majority in the Storting, but they did take part in several ruling coalitions during the 1960s and again in the 1980s. During these periods, Bondevik was named to cabinet posts when new governments were formed. He served as minister for foreign affairs after 1989, and as minister for church and education as well as a term as deputy prime minister. Though he had stepped down as CPP chair in 1995, two years later he became prime minister of Norway after a political upheaval involving the Labor Party and pledges it had made. In the October 1997 parliamentary elections, Labor did not do as well as it had hoped, and so prime minister Thorbjørn Jagland fulfilled a promise to step down if his party failed to match its 1993 electoral results.

Oversaw Shaky Coalition

Bondevik and some political allies quickly put together a coalition government made up of the Centre Party (the former farmers' party in the country) and the Liberal Party, Norway's oldest political party and one that still advocates the adoption of a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens, regardless of employment. This unlikely right-center-left coalition still had a slim number of Storting seats compared to Labor legislators. In a country of avid downhill skiers, the new alliance was called the "Slalom Coalition" because of the need for it to zigzag around the various political objectives among the Storting voting blocs.

Bondevik's first government was notable for the high number of women he named as cabinet ministers, which totaled nine in all. But the stress of the Slalom Coalition began to wear on him, and in the late summer of 1998 his office announced that he was taking a brief but indefinite leave of absence. The pressure of his job, the office noted, had brought on what his physician termed a depressive reaction. The leave lasted a few days short of one month, and made Bondevik the first head of state to publicly take a leave of absence for mental health reasons. Though his condition prompted international headlines, Bondevik received an outpouring of support and public sympathy at home, with many Norwegians hailing his courage and honesty.

Bondevik's deputy prime minister, Culture Minister Anne Enger Lahnstein, became acting prime minister. It was believed that while there were several difficult issues facing the government—interest rates were on the rise, and the price of oil on the world market was falling—there was one particular setback that the prime minister had taken to heart: Bondevik had pledged to increase the amount of monthly cash payments to parents. Under this plan, Norwegian parents with a child under the age of two could receive a $388 a month benefit, tax-free, if one parent chose to stay home rather than place the child at a daycare center—which, like much in Norway, is subsidized by the state. Liberals who favored equal treatment for parents of any gender, as well as conservatives who hailed it as a pro-family measure, supported the idea, but the bill failed to make it through the Storting legislative process.

Hoped to End Stigma

When Bondevik returned to work in late September from his coastal vacation, a statement released by his office quoted him as saying that "when I was put on sick leave, the reason was simply that my strength was gone," according to a Seattle Times report. "I did not have the energy I needed to meet the challenges." He also stated that it was his hope, by making public his situation, "to demystify something which is fairly common, but which many people have problems talking about openly." After his return, Bondevik enjoyed nearly a year and a half without a major domestic crisis, save for a telecom dispute with Sweden over the merger of their state-owned telephone and wireless communications in 1999.

Bondevik's first stint as prime minister ended in March of 2000, when his government received a no-confidence vote in the Storting after a contentious debate over a proposed natural gas plant. Bondevik suggested waiting to begin construction until various environmental concerns could be fully addressed, but his political opponents wanted the project to begin immediately. When he held his ground, he was forced to resign. His successor was the new chief of the Labor Party, Jens Stoltenberg. Elections were held on September 10, 2001, and though Labor won, it could not gather enough political allies to form a coalition government with another party; instead a center-right coalition made up of the CPP, the Liberal Party, and the Conservative Party formed a government, and Bondevik became prime minister for a second time.

Once again Bondevik named several women to cabinet posts, and with the Norwegian economic still on the upswing, he pledged to increase social welfare spending, particularly in the realm of health care and education. There were several foreign policy issues that came to bear on the country, beginning with the 9/11 attacks just a day after the election. In early 2003, Bondevik was one of several European leaders who spoke out against a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Norway, however, like many other nations, pledged humanitarian aid for Iraq. Nearly two years later, with U.S. troops suffering multiple casualties from what appeared to be a complex war of insurgency, Bondevik gave a rare interview to UPI Perspectives. When journalist Gareth Harding asked him if he still believed his government's anti-war stance was, in retrospect, the proper strategy, he replied, "I am more and more convinced that this was the right decision. We felt that more should have been done to find a peaceful outcome…. But nevertheless this is history and now we have to look to the future. We want to contribute towards stabilizing the situation in Iraq, therefore we've had forces there, we are contributing to humanitarian assistance."

Became United Nations Envoy

Later in 2005, at the four-year mark for elections, Bondevik's CPP came in fifth place. This time, a new "Red-Green" coalition had won a majority of the 169 seats in the Storting; four new seats had been added, thanks to the country's population growth. Red-Green alliances marked a new political shift across Europe, with the staunch leftists (in this case, Stoltenberg's Labor Party) allying with the pro-environment parties. In this case, however, it was a coalition of Labor, the Centre Party, and the Socialist Left Party. The red denoted the traditional shade identified with socialist politics, while the green came from the clover symbol of the Centre Party, which was once the political voice for Norway's farmers as the Bondepartiet, or Farmers' Party, the name by which it was known until 1959.

After the results of the September 2005 elections were tallied, Bondevik resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Stoltenberg; he also appeared to resign from politics altogether. He became president of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, and in early 2006 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (born 1938) named Bondevik to serve as the new Special Humanitarian Envoy for the Horn of Africa, an area that includes the troubled regions of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti.

Bondevik has been married since 1970 to Bjørg Ras-mussen, and they have three children. A teetotaler, he is also an avid soccer fan. A few months before he left office in 2005, he made some critical remarks about Swedish house-wares giant Ikea in an interview with Verdens Gang, an Oslo newspaper. He found fault with the simple pictorial instructions provided with Ikea's ready-to-assemble furniture because the diagrams always depicted male figures assembling the item. This was done to appeal to a broad base of Ikea customers, and it was thought that images of women putting together bookshelves would offend Ikea's Muslim customers. "It's important to promote attitudes for sexual equality, not least in Muslim nations," Bondevik said, according to a report by the Guardian's Jon Henley, but he also admitted that "I myself have great problems with screwing together such furniture."


Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders, Gale, 2003.


Economist, August 14, 1999.

Guardian (London, England), March 11, 2005.

International Herald Tribune, September 5, 1998.

New York Times, September 20, 1998; January 9, 2000; December 25, 2003.

Seattle Times, October 28, 1998.

Time International, September 14, 1998.

UPI Perspectives, February 14, 2005.