Politicians, business leaders, lobbyists and not least the media were flocking to the southern coastal city of Arendal this week for an annual round of meetings and debates, all free and open to the public. “Arendalsuka” has become a national arena where top officials and ordinary folks can swap opinions, and some claim it’s where the political campaign really begins in advance of next year’s national elections.
“Arendalsuka is starting on Monday and with that, the long election campaign is underway,” wrote Arne Strand, political commentator and former editor-in-chief of newspaper Dagsavisen, over the weekend. He noted how all the opposition parties represented in Parliament will be criticizing the government coalition parties, which in turn will be defending themselves. There will also be no small dose of parties seeking new alliances amongst themselves, with an eye to forming new coalitions.
“The government alternatives are less clear than last time,” Strand wrote in Dagsavisen. While the Conservatives’ leader Erna Solberg will continue as prime minister if she wins a conservative majority, voters don’t yet know exactly what her coalition will look like, or whether Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre will form a left-center coalition or go it alone. The small parties like leftist SV, the Greens, the Christian Democrats, the Center Party and the Liberals will play a key role, with Arendalsuka reaching its climax at Thursday night’s party leader debate.
Until then, this year’s event is already billed as bigger than ever, with daily programs packed with more than 500 seminars, speeches, debates and less formal meetings, held everywhere from cafés and restaurants in Arendal to the local cultural center and City Hall. Scores of stands have been set up all over town by political parties, humanitarian organizations, social welfare agencies and other special interest groups. The goal, according to organizers, is to be a political meeting place that fuels civic activism and interest in the issues of the day.
Most important is the access all the events provide to top leaders within politics and business. Arendalsuka has stirred some controversy after it began in 2012, mostly because of its early ties to a powerful private PR firm known for influence peddling. Current local organizers, who stress non-partisan independence, seem most proud of arranging hundreds of events throughout the week that are open to all with free entry and no tickets involved. It’s mostly a matter of showing up early to get a seat.
Monday’s events were kicking off with a conference entitled “Global Outlook Norway,” with the country’s constantly globe-trotting foreign minster, Børge Brende, on hand to open it and talk about the challenges the world faces at present. He also planned to talk about how Norway can help fight poverty and hunger with its own seafood industry, while also outlining how Norway’s own foreign policy and humanitarian aid policies are at a crossroads. He already faced criticism Monday morning from opposition politicians, professors and foreign policy researchers.
Arendalsuka itself was officially opening Monday afternoon with big band music, cake and coffee before discussion of international affairs was to give way to a debate in the evening among the leaders of all the parties’ youth organizations. The weeklong events run through August 20.