Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was moving on this week, from guiding the nation’s mourning period to fronting political issues and, not least, the municipal election campaign that was postponed by the July 22 terrorist attacks. Commentators who follow the popular premier agreed after the first televised party leader debate that Stoltenberg succeeded in making the transition from statesman back to politician.
Wearing his customary red tie for the first time in weeks, instead of the dark ties he used in memorial ceremonies and funerals, Stoltenberg won the highest marks for his performance in Tuesday night’s debate televised live in a joint production by TV2 and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He led off the debate, and set its somewhat dampened tone in respect for the victims of the attacks, but then he and his six fellow party leaders started actively arguing over the issues.
“This bodes well,” wrote commentator Hårvard Narum in newspaper Aftenposten. No Norwegian election campaign, Narum noted, has ever started on such uncertain footing, but he thought the televised debate was both “engaging” and reflected “reciprocal respect” for each party leader’s opinions. Important local issues such as care for the elderly, property tax and schools were the subject of sharp exchanges, but that’s to be expected before an election that’s predicted to draw a high voter turnout.
The 52-year-old Stoltenberg started off the week by attending the first day of school in Skedsmo, northeast of Oslo. “I can’t think of a better way to start the future we’ll create after July 22 than at the start of school,” Stoltenberg told students at Kjeller School. “This is all about the future, knowledge and tolerance, as opposed to the prejudice and ignorance that contributed to the violence we saw.”
The next day he was debating issues on national television but he and his fellow politicians managed to maintain an air of the same solidarity that gripped the country after the attacks. They pointed fingers at each other, but also nodded while others spoke and even broke into laughter on a few occasions, like when Progress Party leader Siv Jensen speculated what would happen if her doctor one day suggests that she should move into a nursing home.
Stoltenberg, though, has faced the biggest challenges of any of the party leaders and still faces more. Asked in an Aftenposten interview over the weekend whether he was confident the nation would have responded with as much compassion as it did if a Muslim had been behind the attacks instead of an ethnic Norwegian, Stoltenberg replied: “No. I’m not completely confident. I hope that would be the case, but not confident. It’s the group-thinking that’s dangerous.” He said he thinks the most important lesson of July 22 is the importance of the individual, and seeing that the actions of one individual cannot and must not taint an entire group.
He said he wasn’t “relieved” that a Norwegian was behind the terrorism, “but I realized … that we would avoid what otherwise might have occurred, that we would see more hate and conflicts with the Muslim minority.” Stoltenberg also maintains that the Norwegian bomber and gunman shouldn’t get any more attention beyond what’s necessary. He has avoided referring to the gunman by name and said he has no intention of visiting the man’s mother, who lives in Oslo and is considered a victim as well.
Stoltenberg repeated that he doesn’t want to be viewed as a new national patriarch. Now he intends to get back to running Norway’s government and working for the party he leads, and stay on the campaign trail.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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