Stoltenberg shakes up government

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, acutely aware that his government coalition parties have taken a dive in public opinion polls, was expected to announce a major shake-up of his own government ministers from the Labour Party on Friday. Among the many moves: Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre will be assigned to restore faith in the troubled health ministry.

Norway's 19 government ministers posed casually last spring before getting down to work on next year's state budget. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (front and center) was flanked by Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete (wearing a green fleece) and Kristin Halvorsen (in denim jacket) even though Halvorsen had just stepped down as leader of the the Socialist Left party (SV). New changes in Stoltenberg's own ministerial line-up from the Labour Party were due on Friday. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Both VG Nett and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) were reporting early Friday morning that Støre, widely considered the most successful and respected minister within Stoltenberg’s team, will take over as Health Minister right after the weekly Council of State at 11am, when King Harald V formally approves top state personnel changes.

While some may wonder why Stoltenberg would replace his strongest minister, one NRK commentator suggested the prime minister was calling on his “best man” to fix one of his government’s most glaring problems. Criticism has been hurled at current Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen for months over a major reorganization of hospitals in Oslo and major changes in how state-run hospitals and community-run health care services divide their responsibility.

Some also speculated that the move is part of Stoltenberg’s efforts to groom Støre as his own replacement as leader of the Labour Party and its prime minister candidate. A move to the health ministry, one of the most important within any government, would give Støre valuable experience in domestic politics after years of running Norway’s foreign policy.

Strøm-Erichsen isn’t being fired, though, according to the media leaks. She’s being moved back to the ministry she headed before taking over as health minister a few years ago, and will resume her post as defense minister. Defense has been headed by Espen Barth Eide just since last spring, but he’s reportedly been tapped to take over Støre’s post as Norway’s new foreign minister.

In other ministerial changes, the current Minister of Culture, Anniken Huitfeldt, will take over as labour minister and Stoltenberg is bringing in one of party’s “bright young stars,” Hadia Tajik to take over Huitfeldt’s role. The only minister who’ll be leaving the government is Hanne Bjurstrøm, the current labour minister who’s been criticized for intervening in recent strikes and ordering the strikers back to work.

Not only has Strøm-Erichsen survived the criticism that’s been pouring down on Stoltenberg’s cabinet of late, so has Rigmor Aasrud, the minister in charge of administrative issues. Aasrud also has been under fire for failing to better secure the government complex in downtown Oslo that was bombed in last year’s attacks by a right-wing Norwegian terrorist. Testimony released on Thursday, however, revealed that Aasrud herself was never told she had responsibility for such security issues, and therefore can’t be blamed for the lack of security when the attacks occurred.

Friday’s major ministerial shake-up is seen as Stoltenberg’s latest attempt to restore confidence in his government one year before next autumn’s national elections. His new line-up will therefore have one year to win back voters who seem to be fleeing to the non-socialist opposition parties.

Many of the government coalition’s popularity problems, though, can be traced to Labour’s minor coalition partner, the Center Party. It recently pushed through highly unpopular measures to further protect farmers and raise food prices, for example, setting off threats of a trade war with the EU that now Eide will have to deal with. Debate is likely over whether Labour should continue to cooperate with the Center Party, which lately has emerged as more of a liability than an asset in Stoltenberg’s quest to retain government power.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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