Questions fly over coalition’s future

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The honeymoon is definitely over for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the coalition government he leads. After winning re-election last year, the coalition’s three parties are now publicly disagreeing on a number of issues, and questions are flying over whether Stoltenberg can keep his team in place.

Jens Stoltenberg and his two fellow coalition party leaders Kristin Halvorsen (right) and Liv Signe Navarsete, presented a much more united front last fall than they do now. PHOTO: Statsministerskontor

Stoltenberg flew out of Norway late last week and has spent the past several days in impressive company, first with the president of Mexico on an official visit to Mexico City and then with the president of the United States and the chairman of the Federal Reserve in Washington. Stoltenberg has played a major role in international climate talks and has presided over one of the world’s strongest economies and best places to live for the past five years. Even Fed boss Ben Bernanke was willing to make time in his busy schedule for a visit from Stoltenberg.

The Norwegian prime minister himself may well have been glad to leave some of his problems at home for a few days. On the day he left, he had to fend off criticism that his government has lowered its ambitions and that his coalition is bickering. The number of issues on which the government’s parties disagree seems to be rising, or at least the disagreements are louder.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls have indicated a loss of voter support for all three parties, and Stoltenberg is increasingly having to settle disputes within his own Labour Party as well.

He may well be wondering, as he represents Norway abroad and receives warm welcomes from Mexican President Felipe Calderon and from US President Barack Obama, “what on earth has happened back home?” How can things change so quickly? Stoltenberg held the same three government parties intact for four years and won a solid vote of confidence in last September’s election. Seven months later, some think the government may actually fall any day now.

Newspaper Aftenposten published its own editorial opinion on Tuesday that the coalition is rundown and appears more characterized by division than unity. “Enthusiasm for the government is being replaced by a struggle for each party’s own interests,” claimed Aftenposten. “If this tendency grows stronger … the government risks losing the force necessary to steer the country with confidence.”

On Thursday, researchers will deliver a report weighing the pros and cons of oil exploration off scenic Lofoten and Vesterålen. That’s the issue that more than any other threatens to bring down the government, because both the Socialist Left (SV) and the Center Party oppose any oil drilling in the area for environmental reasons, but Labour favours industrial activity that can create badly needed jobs, especially in northern Norway. As Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Nordland reported on Tuesday, Stoltenberg may likely dread the report. After months of putting the issue on a back burner, even during the election campaign, Stoltenberg will finally have to face a showdown over it. 

Other difficult issues are piling up as well, with disagreements over hospital reform, the need to meet EU directives on data storage, investment in the transport sector, delays over carbon recapture programs at gas power plants, tax levels and use of oil revenues. “Poor Jens,” mutter some, wondering how anyone even as genial as Stoltenberg can maintain government peace in the face of such conflicts.

SV leader Kristin Halvorsen, who was Stoltenberg’s finance minister during his first government and now serves as education minister, said during the Easter holidays that the government lacks sparkle right now, an admission that some political observers interpret as a danger signal. While her party and Stoltenberg’s and the Center Party have found solutions to many earlier disputes, it’s become more doubtful whether they’ll manage now. 

Meanwhile, Conservatives leader Erna Solberg and Progress Party leader Siv Jensen are waiting in the wings, both of them eager to form a government. Solberg even launched an initiative last week to give the voters more power in deciding actually who will run the government. Voters are only allowed to vote for parties in Norway, not persons, and Solberg thinks that should change.

But that might actually offer comfort for Jens. He generally remains popular, if not his party, and he represents Norway well out in the rest of the world. So he may be able to salvage his role somehow, if not by surviving this parliamentary period, then perhaps at the next election.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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