Labour again the largest in the land

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Norway’s Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, has once again emerged as the largest party in the land, just as Stoltenberg heads into this weekend’s national party meeting (landsmøte). Stoltenberg has managed, in recent years, to keep his party united and unusually harmonious, and looks likely to become the longest-ruling  government leader since Einar Gerhardsen.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg seems firmly at the helm of the Labour Party, after nearly 10 years as party leader. Party members are gathering this weekend at Folkets Hus in Oslo for their national meeting held every other year. PHOTO; Statsministerenskontor

Stoltenberg had good reason to smile as he started assembling members of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) in Oslo on Thursday, despite some unexpected hacker attacks on the party’s website. A new public opinion poll conducted by research firm Norstat for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) shows that Labour now has 32.3 percent of the vote, up from 29.6 percent in March. That’s still below the 35.4 percent that won Stoltenberg’s party the last national election in 2009, but it’s a big improvement from recent polls during the winter.

The Conservatives (Høyre) were stable, with 25.6 percent of voter support, while their most likely campaign partner for a conservative government after the next election in 2013, the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), took a dive. The Progress Party now claims only 20.6 percent of the vote, down from the 22.9 percent it won in the 2009 election and well below the levels it later soared to last year. Its dive in popularity is widely linked to its handling of a recent sex scandal within the party.

Best for Labour in months
The new opinion poll is Labour’s best in the past year, and will give the party momentum as members get down to business this weekend in advance of this fall’s local elections around the country. A wide range of issues are on the table, from energy and employment policies to the future of Norway’s controversial fur industry, but Stoltenberg is widely viewed as having full control.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Thursday that several issues have been parked even before the national meeting begins. State support for dental care, for example, will now be “evaluated” and more money will be allocated for highway and railway improvements. Many tough decision have already been made as well, for example last week’s decision to reorganize local hospital care and close some maternity and orthopedic wards. The EU’s data storage directive was approved in Parliament.

Stoltenberg himself has emerged as a popular prime minister who represents Norway well on an international basis and seems to smooth over and, as he says, “find solutions” to conflicts at home. In an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday, Stoltenberg said he consistently opts now for a “patient” approach to conflicts, and resists confrontation.

‘The ability to adjust’
That’s a new strategy for a traditionally unruly party that has its left- and right sides. Stoltenberg told DN he has managed to solve internal conflicts by using what he thinks is the most important strength of a leader: “Patience, the ability to adjust, the ability to tug a little at both others and yourself to find solutions.”

In doing so, Stoltenberg has shaken off earlier criticism that he was “conflict-shy,” weak, unclear and even too nice. “From the time I became party leader, I’ve wanted to be true to the party’s values but not to its way of operating,” Stoltenberg told DN. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that we have a unified party, and one in harmony. We have won two national elections and we are the largest party in the Nordic countries.”

No one is challenging Stoltenberg as party leader, leaving him poised to be the longest-ruling government leader since Einar Gerhardsen in the post-war era. His most likely successor, if Stoltenberg chooses to step down, is viewed as being Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who’s being groomed for new responsibilities within the party.

Stoltenberg says his party now must succeed at winning new elections and finding “good, unifying solutions. That’s what will give Labour dominance in Norwegian poilitics.” Labour currently has 174 mayors and 87 vice-mayors around the country and wants more, not least in Oslo.

On a personal note, Stoltenberg said he has “learned to lower his shoulders” and relax more, become better at putting the country’s problems in perspective, and better at taking care of himself. “I’ll never be an athlete, but I’m better at living a more healthy lifestyle,” he told DN. He regularly exercises and enjoys skiing and cycling.

He confirmed that he also enjoys living in the new state residence for the prime minister, located just behind the Royal Palace. “But the day someone is prime minister because they want to live there, is the day they should resign,” he said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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