The usually peaceful coastal town of Arendal in Southern Norway was once again becoming the scene of lively debate this week, as thousands of politicians, social activists, business leaders, labour and non-governmental organizations gather for the annual event known as “Arendalsuka.” This year’s gathering is especially timely, with a resurgent Labour Party suddenly on the offensive and the Conservatives-led government on the defense.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition managed to at least partially resolve a major personnel crisis just prior to the Arendal events, with the resignation and swift replacement Monday of Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg. He got into lots of trouble over what he insisted was a private summer holiday in Iran with his new Iranian-born partner, and for ignoring security procedures.
Both security and preparedness are especially sensitive issues for Solberg and her government at present, after the state Auditor General’s office has repeatedly pointed out serious flaws. That’s prompted opposition parties in Parliament, led by Labour, to pounce and harshly criticize how the government is dealing with the terror threat.
Sandberg’s failure to follow security guidelines regarding mobile phone use while in Iran has opened up the government to more criticism. Opposition parties were by no means satisfied just with the resignation of Sandberg on Monday, with the Reds Party vowing that Solberg’s troubles were far from over. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre was also demanding more answers and the entire security issue was bound to be a major bone of contention at a nationally televised party leader debate in Arendal later this week.
Winds shifting in new polls
Others were excited about Arendalsuka because, even though it’s not an election year, it offers a platform for early campaigning and attempts by Labour to finally shake off its defensive posture of its past highly troubled year. The first public opinion polls taken in August, when Norwegians are returning from summer holidays, show the leftist parties gaining steam. Labour was once again Norway’s largest single party, according to the Poll of polls, with 26.3 percent of the vote compared to 24.9 percent for the Conservatives. The Progress Party, clearly feeling the ill-effects of the Sandberg saga, fell to just 11.4 percent. The polls actually showed the opposition parties in Parliament with a majority of voter support at present, with nearly 55 percent of the vote compared to the government parties’ 39.3 percent.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Monday, however, that other polls measuring economic security and political views suggest that nearly 40 percent of Norwegians are uncertain about which parties they think have the best politics. That could be because most Norwegians are quite satisfied at present with their jobs, their incomes and their quality of life, according to one survey conducted by labour organization YS.
‘Anything can happen’
Some thorny issues nonetheless loom for Solberg’s government, and political commentator Harald Stanghelle wrote in newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that this will be “an autumn where anything can happen.” The government will be under attack over its security and preparedness program, how it handled the Sandberg saga, whether farmers should get even more financial assistance and protection after the drought and complaints over regional and municipal reform programs. Any one of those issues could result in a vote of no-confidence in the Parliament, and topple Solberg’s government.
She has consistently shown a remarkable ability to shake off such threats. Major issues will, however, be under debate at what some call the “summer circus” of Arendalsuka. It was modeled on Sweden’s Almedalsveckan on Gotland, which was all but spoiled this year by the presence of neo-Nazi groups. A threatened demonstration by one of them, known as The Nordic Resistance Movement, was cancelled, though, after its application to participate was rejected by Arendal Mayor Robert C Nordli. Police will be on hand if they show up after all.
Now Arendalsuka is even bigger than Sweden’s political gathering, with around 70,000 showing up last year and even more events planned this year: 1,067, compared to around 800 last year. “We never thought in our wildest imagination that it would get so big,” Øystein Djupedal, a former top politician himself who leads Arendalsuka’s program committee, told news bureau NTB. He was glad the Sandberg saga had culminated with Sandberg’s resignation, though, telling state broadcaster NRK on Monday that it otherwise would have “overshadowed everything.” Prime Minister Solberg and many members of her government would be arriving in Arendal on Tuesday, while others were already there.