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Norway Premier Fights for Survival in Terror Probe

Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg
Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's prime minister. Photographer: Ramin Talie/Bloomberg

Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has gone from being called the “father of the nation” to become a political punching bag as he fights to retain power in next year’s general election.

The 53-year-old premier will appear in parliament today to defend his government’s failure to prevent last year’s July 22 terror attack, in which Anders Behring Breivik bombed Stoltenberg’s Oslo office, killing eight, and massacred 69 people at a summer camp of the Labor Party’s youth wing.

While Stoltenberg was initially praised for his measured and compassionate response, his administration was slammed in August following a formal probe into the attacks. The July 22 Commission criticized a failure in leadership and “unacceptable” response delays. Opinion polls show Stoltenberg may be ousted in next year’s September election after eight years governing Europe’s second-biggest oil exporter.

“The hill is very steep for the government parties up until the next elections,” said Bernt Aardal, a professor at the University of Oslo. “As we see from the opinion polls, if nothing dramatic changes that situation, it seems quite likely that we’ll have a change of government.”

Poll Slump

According to a poll published in newspaper Dagbladet on Nov. 24, Stoltenberg’s Labor Party and his coalition partners, the Socialist Left and Center Party, would win 64 seats in parliament, compared with 85 for the two largest opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Progress Party. The Conservatives, which have vowed to cut taxes and increase oil exploration, had 31.6 percent backing, compared with 28.8 percent for the Labor party.

A Gallup poll in September showed record low support for the government after the commission released its findings. The conclusions in the report prompted the country’s largest tabloid, VG, to call for the premier’s resignation.

Stoltenberg is having a hard time meeting voters’ rising expectations as the nation’s oil wealth swells, said Anders Todal Jenssen, a political science professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Political Incompetence

Besides the terror response, the premier has also struggled amid controversy over an overhaul of some of the nation’s biggest hospitals. Higher import tariffs on cheese and meat and slow progress in building infrastructure such as roads and railways have also eroded the government’s popularity. Stoltenberg’s coalition partners are in danger of falling short of the 4 percent needed to make it into parliament, polls show.

“All this adds up to an impression of political incompetence that creates a problem for the Labor Party in the long run,” said Todal Jenssen. “There’s a diffuse feeling that something is wrong.”

Stoltenberg clung to power in the 2009 elections becoming the first leader in 16 years to win re-election after steering the Nordic economy out of a recession by tapping a record amount of the nation’s oil wealth.

Stoltenberg’s testimony today marks the end of five days of parliamentary hearings that were spread over three weeks and saw police chiefs, ministers and bureaucrats testify on actions taken during and prior to the July 22 attacks.

Police Chief

The report by the July 22 Commission also prompted national Police Chief Oeystein Maeland, who’s a close friend of Stoltenberg and was best man at his wedding, to step down. Justice Minister, Knut Storberget, also resigned in November last year.

“I take responsibility,” Storberget told the hearing today. The police “failed on significant points,” he said.

The government still isn’t moving fast enough to fix the deficiencies uncovered, Alexandra Bech Gjoerv, head of the commission, said at the opening of the hearings on Nov. 6. “I’m impatient to see a clear willingness for change,” she said.

Stoltenberg has said the best way for him to take responsibility for the shortcomings is to remain in office. He vowed to boost safeguards against terrorist attacks by presenting a series of measures, including a new police emergency center in Oslo and more frequent drills at all levels of his administration.

Changing Culture

“The best way for me to take responsibility is to make sure we get a common understanding, get the facts on the table, in an honest way through the July 22 Commission, through learning and primarily through action, implementing concrete measures, new laws, new rules, more staff, more helicopters, more police,” Stoltenberg said today. “The most important measure is that we are changing the culture that the commission underlined so strongly. We’ve started with that.”

Breivik, who in August was sentenced to 21 years in prison with an option to extend his term, has since complained over his treatment behind bars arguing it restricts his freedom of expression, VG reported.

“It’s quite important that the prime minister, as well as other government members involved in this hearing, succeed in improving the image of the government,” said Aardal. “They don’t want the image of the Labor Party as a government failure to stick.”

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