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Jens Stoltenberg: How the orator fell from glory

Published: 06 Sep 2013 09:05 GMT+02:00

The last time people outside Norway saw much of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg he was a hero. 
 
The speech he made in the wake of Anders Breivik's twin terror attacks two years ago, calling on Norwegians to "answer hatred with love", struck a chord world-wide -- not least because of the contrast with America's aggressive response to 9/11. 
 
But next Monday, the country's voters are poised to kick out the centre-left coalition he heads, and instead vote in the right-wing Conservatives for the first time in eight years.  
 
So what went wrong for the leader so telegenic that he has topped a list of Hottest Heads of State ever since Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko got voted out and thrown into jail? 
 
Bernt Aardal and Frank Aarebrot, two of Norway's most astute political analysts, both blame the the inquiry into Breivik's attacks, which reported in August last year.  
 
"It was an absolutely devastating critique of the police and Norway’s ability to deal with any crisis," Aarebrot, a professor of politics at the University of Bergen, argues.  "And it really scarred the Labour party’s image of being the party of good governance in Norway." 
 
Aardal, Professor of Politics at the University of Oslo, argues that the report effectively cancelled out the impact of Stoltenberg's inspiring oratory. 
"That removed to a large extent the positive reactions that he received after July 22, 2011." 
 
Support for Labour had shot up to 40.5 percent in the aftermath of Breivik's attacks, giving the party a huge lead over the Conservatives on 22 percent. 
 
But after the 22 July report was published a year later, the Conservatives took the lead, with the support of 34 percent of voters to Labour's 29.7 percent. 
 
Stoltenberg's personal popularity declined along with that of his party. 
 
Just weeks after the report was published, Conservative leader Erna Solberg eclipsed Stoltenberg as the country's most popular choice for Prime Minister for the first time.
 
Aarebrot believes that the loss of faith in Labour as the party of good governance has made it suddenly vulnerable to attacks from the right on the way it runs the health system, elderly care, and social welfare. 
 
"Politics is more than rhetoric," Christian Tybring-Gjedde, one of the leading figures in the populist Progress Party, told The Local, when asked about why Norwegians no longer remembered Stoltenberg's famous speech. "There are many things about Norwegian society which people are very much disappointed with. Despite our enormous wealth, we have huge problems in our infrastructure." 
 
Most analysts agree that Stoltenberg's chances of keeping his job after the election on September 9 are close to none. 
 
"Something extraordinary would have to happen to prevent a change of government," Aardal told AFP. "Something never seen before in a Norwegian election."
 
Partly this is simply because after two terms, Norwegians are ready for a change. 
 
"For for a government to be in charge for eight consecutive years is very rare in Norway," Aardal told The Local. "Two thirds of Norwegian governments are minority governments, and they haven’t succeeded in winning a second term."
 
That's why the right-wing opposition have sought to paint Stoltenberg as tired and complacent. 
 
"I think he’s happy to lose," Tybring-Gjedde said. "If you’re PM for 12 years, which is the alternative, you have a huge responsibility and no excuses you can bring. I don’t think he actually wants to win." 
 
Despite this, Stoltenberg has managed to outshine all of his political rivals in the campaign -- starting with the bold stunt of going out in a taxi and picking up passengers, ostensibly to hear their views "from the gut". 
 
"He is the star of the election campaign," Aarebrot declares. "He looks like he’s running for an election for the first time in his life. When the newspapers rate the televised debates, he comes top of just about every rating." 
 
Aardal argues that Stoltenberg's good looks and likeability mean he is still popular with most Norwegians. 
 
"I think he’s well respected. He’s a very likeable person and generally, he’s a very close to people. When you see him out among them in the crowd, he walks up to people and shakes their hands. Solberg seems to be a little more distant." 
 
Stoltenberg's campaign performance has nudged him ahead of Solberg in popularity once again, but it hasn't managed managed to rescue his party. 
 
Indeed, the better Labour does, the more right-wing Norway's next government is likely to be. 
 
If the Conservatives win by a slim margin, that will give them no choice than to go into coalition with the populist Progress Party, which is likely to get a greater share of the vote than the Liberals and the Christian Democrats put together. As a result, Progress will gain incredible leverage. 
 
But Norway may not have seen the last of Jens Stoltenberg. He may have already been prime minister for eight years. But at 54, he's still young
enough to give it another go in five years' time. 
 
 
 

Richard Orange (richard.orange@thelocal.com)

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