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Stoltenberg shakes up government

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced the replacement on Monday of two Center Party ministers in the government coalition he leads. The shake-up is widely viewed as a means of strengthening both his Labour Party-led government and the Center Party itself, which now has so little voter support that it’s dangerously close to losing its right to representation in Parliament.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg presenting his government's new ministers for agriculture, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (left), and for transportation, Marit Arnstad. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) carried the news live from outside the Royal Palace in Oslo, interrupting its live coverage of the terror trial also going on in the capital. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

The Center Party ran into even more trouble with its core constituency this spring, the farmers and rural residents who rely on government support for the agricultural industry in Norway. They staged a series of angry protests around the country when they failed to get the government funding they’d demanded. Agriculture Minister Lars Peder Brekk is now being replaced by his party colleague Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who’s been a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Center Party since 2005 when the party did well enough in national elections to join Stoltenberg’s left-center coalition. Slagsvold is also a farmer himself or, as he put, “a proud sole proprietor.”

Also replaced on Monday was Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa, who also has been widely criticized over Norway’s ailing road and public transport systems despite a major boost in funding and seven years with the Center Party in control of the transport ministry. She was replaced by Marit Arnstad, a veteran Center Party politician and former energy minister in an earlier center-right government. Arnstad withdrew from politics after becoming a single mother and reportedly wanting to devote more time to being a parent, but she remained active in the party and served on several major corporate boards of directors. She’s thus making a major comeback, a year ahead of national elections in the fall of 2013.

Stoltenberg and the now former transport minister, Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa, were all smiles at the recent opening of a short stretch of the E18 highway. Now she's been replaced. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Stoltenberg called both of the new ministers “experienced” and “capable” politicians whom he knows well. He thanked Kleppa and Brekk for their work over the past several years. He avoided dwelling on the trouble they’d faced, not least the noisy protests from his government partner’s farming constituency, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) it was simply a “natural” point in time to make changes in his ministerial line-up.

When asked why, Stolenberg said it was because the government had completed two major policy statements on transport and agriculture, and now two new ministers can use the summer to prepare for implementing them.

“All governments change their ministers from time to time,” Stoltenberg added.

Lars Peder Brekk of the Center Party has also been replaced as agriculture minister, after a serious falling out with his party's most important constituency, Norwegian farmers. PHOTO: Landbruks Departementet

Vedum also avoided directly addressing the farmers’ protests this spring, which clearly shook up the Center Party and left it with less than 4 percent of the vote, according to one public opinion poll conducted a few weeks ago. Another poll now shows the party to be just over the 4 percent needed for representation in parliament, but there’s no question the party has become an extremely weak partner in Stoltenberg’s coalition government, as has its third partner, the Socialist Left party (SV).

“This shows a clear strengthening of the government,” said the head of another small party in opposition, Trine Schei Grande of the Liberals (Venstre), which in Norway is actually on the conservative side of the political spectrum despite the party’s name. Grande flat out stated that the Center Party had to “throw out” Brekk, replacing him with another “dyktig” (clever, capable) politician.

The Norwegian adjective “dyktig” was used a lot Monday morning, not only by Stoltenberg but by political commentators and politicians in the opposition. Siv Jensen, leader of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) and a candidate for prime minister next year if a conservative coalition wins government power, also used it to describe Arnstad and even allowed that both she and Vedum were “two exciting new ministers.”

Jensen predicted, though, that both of them will soon face opposition from Stoltenberg’s Labour Party because of fundamental political differences. “It doesn’t help with new faces if the politics are the same,” Jensen told NRK, claiming that only the use of more oil revenues for major investment in roads and railways, for example, will solve Norway’s transportation problems.

Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats, yet another small party in opposition, also said “these are two dyktige ministers we’re getting … who will strengthen the government.” He seemed to agree with Jensen, and suggested the Center Party and the government had to do something, because their support from the farmers had “crumbled.”

New political jobs likely await
It wasn’t immediately clear what new job Brekk would assume but website VG Nett reported that Kleppa probably has the political backing to be named as new top administrator in her home county of Rogaland, the often sought-after position called fylkesmann. It’s generally given to veteran politicians leaving state government service and MP Geir Pollestad of the Center Party said he’d already told Kleppa she would be “an excellent fylkemann.”

The post is currently held by another recently replaced government minister, Tora Aasland of SV, but she’ll turn 70 in November and will therefore join the ranks of the retired. That leaves the post conveniently open for another top politician looking for work. Kleppa is 63 and had already said she wouldn’t stand for re-election to another four-year term in the parliament next year. Few, however, think she’s ready for retirement herself.

“Kleppa is very well qualified and has respect in many political camps,” Bent Høie of the Conservative Party (Høyre) told VG Nett. “If she wants it, she’ll get the job.”

Kleppa recently made headlines when VG reported how she’d pushed through a major, expensive undersea tunnel project that will connect Stavanger with the northeastern parts of Rogaland including Kleppa’s own home community of Ryfylke. If she gets the top fylkesmann post, she may be able to use the tunnel to get to work herself, if it’s finished on time.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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