In egalitarian Norway, where the late, beloved King Olav was known to take the streetcar, it is everyone's business when the prime minister buys a luxurious, bombproof limousine. \nWeighing in at more than four tonnes, the exquisite black BMW 760 Li B7 arrived from Germany in mid-October. Given that al-Qaeda had recently threatened Norway, of all countries, with "an inferno," no one begrudged Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik the protection of the car's steel armor and thick glass windows. But in this small, transparent social democracy, the rules of the road are applied to everyone. And according to the rules, Bondevik's new chariot was too heavy -- by 40kg. \n"The vehicle has been fitted with so much armor that its total weight exceeds what we can approve," said Bjorn Olberg, head of the motor-vehicle inspection station where the prime minister's staff took the car to be registered. "The law is the same for all. There can be no dispensation." \nThe car, ordered almost two years ago, is a standard high-security model used by politicians and executives throughout Europe. But Norway, which has twice rejected EU membership, has its own strict safety rules limiting automobile axle loads. One might think Bondevik could cite national security or common sense and set off in his new wheels. Not here. \n"The government's cars are registered in the normal way, and we must stick to the code," said Oeivind Oestang, the prime minister's spokesman. "Otherwise there would be a political debate." \nBondevik, a Christian Democrat, knows the peril of acting imperiously in a land of 4.5 million equals. When a news team clocked his chauffeured car moving 74mph (119kph) in a 50-mph zone a few years ago, the newspapers ran blistering editorials. An even shriller outcry occurred when one of his predecessors, Gro Harlem Brundtland, used a blinking blue light to cut through traffic and reach an airline flight on state business. \n"Prime minister or shoemaker, it makes no difference," said Inge Lonning, vice president of the country's Parliament. "That's Norwegian tradition." \nAs aides debated what to do with the burly new BMW, it remained parked for six weeks at an undisclosed location without plates. The prime minister continued moving about in his 1998-model car, which was described as "a little worn out," with 160,000 miles on the odometer. It, too, was armored, and officials insisted that Bondevik was safe. But the older vehicle had less steel and fewer security features than his protective-service agents thought prudent in today's climate. \nBondevik himself refrained from commenting on the bureaucratic standstill. So did BMW. But instead of losing interest, journalists started dwelling on the new car's luxurious appointments -- in particular the motorized, reclining rear seat that would allow Bondevik to sleep in comfort during the two-hour ride between the capital and his vacation cottage on Norway's southern coast. \nPolitically, this was an ominous change of emphasis, for if anything ruffles Norwegian sensibilities more than special treatment under the law, it may be the open enjoyment of luxury. \nThe country has gone from poor to wealthy in a generation or two, thanks to its North Sea oil, but the national ethic is based on thrift, self-effacement and a leveling tax code. \nBondevik, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister, is abstemious by nature, but the idea of him reclining in a leather throne in the back of a four-tonne black limousine, if allowed to crystallize, would please only his rivals in the socialistic Labor Party. \nTo get the car on the road and the story out of the papers, aides first considered removing 40kg of steel armor plate. But reducing security was deemed unwise. They also thought about re-engineering the axle and suspension systems, thus qualifying the car for registration in another technical class. But that would be costly, and journalists were already peppering Bondevik's office with questions (thus far unanswered) about the car's price. \nThe solution, when it finally came, was elegant given the political imperatives. \n"We have decided," Oestang announced, "to send the car back to the factory and have the back seat removed. It will be replaced by a more standard seat that weighs quite a lot less. The car will be returned to use in a couple of weeks and can then be approved."
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