Jens Stoltenberg was dubbed the “Voice of Utoya” for his stirring speeches that rallied Norwegians after Anders Breivik’s devastating attacks in 2011 – yet with his party lagging in the polls, Norway’s once heroic premier is set to lose a general election on Monday after eight years in office.
In a bitter twist, the 54-year-old Norwegian Labour Party Prime Minister and his Cabinet are on course to be replaced by a conservative coalition that is likely to include the populist right-wing and anti-immigration Progress Party, of which the far-right mass murderer Breivik was once a member.
In the wake of Breivik’s twin terror attacks, in which scores of teenaged members of Labour Party were massacred while attending a summer camp of Norway’s Utoya island, Mr Stoltenberg appeared on television and declared: “We will never renounce our values – our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity.”
His defiant yet peaceful response to Norway’s worst acts of violence since the Second World War won the hearts of Norwegians, if not the world In 2011, Labour Party’s popularity reached 40.5 per cent, giving it a huge lead over the opposition conservatives who were down to a mere 22 per cent.
But on the eve of Monday’s Norwegian general election, the tables appear to have been turned. Two years after the massacre, Norway’s conservatives are in the lead with about 34 per cent while Labour is polling around 29 per cent. In terms of leadership choice, conservative Hoyre party leader, Erna Solberg has eclipsed Mr Stoltenberg by 4 per cent.
The drop in support for Labour has occurred despite a decision by several survivors of the Utoya island massacre to run in the election as Labour party candidates.
In what appeared to be a desperate attempt to win support, Mr Stoltenberg last month resorted to posing as an Oslo taxi driver and having passengers’ reactions filmed as they discovered that they were being chauffeured by the Norwegian PM. “I think I would rather be a prime minister than a taxi driver,” he said afterwards.
Analysts have blamed Mr Stoltenberg’s fall from grace on a damning independent inquiry carried out last year, which concluded that Norwegian police could have prevented Breivik’s devastating Oslo bomb attack, which killed eight people, and that his subsequent slaughter of 69 young people, most of them teenagers, on Utoya island could have been halted earlier if they had acted properly.
“It was an absolutely devastating critique of the police and of Norway’s ability to deal with a crisis” said Frank Aarebrot, politics professor at the University of Bergen, “It really scarred Labour’s image as the part of good governance in Norway,”
Professor Aarebrot says the effect of the inquiry was to undermine confidence in Labour and lay the party open to criticism that it had failed in other areas, including the way it runs Norway’s health and social security systems.
Bernt Aardal, professor of politics at the University of Oslo has claimed that the inquiry’s withering critique effectively cancelled the effects of Mr Stoltenberg’s inspiring speeches.
Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a leading member of the Progress Party, told Norway’s The Local website recently: “There are many things about Norwegian society which people are very much disappointed with. Despite our enormous wealth, we have huge problems with our infrastructure,” he added.
Commentators say that the Progress Party toned down its ant-Islamic and anti-immigration rhetoric after 2011 and Hoyre has announced that it is prepared to form a coalition with the party after Monday’s election.
But some observers have pointed out that with the revenues of its giant oil and gas reserves estimated at €560 billion (£471 billion) and growing, voters in Norway can be almost certain that whichever party is in power it is unlikely to bring about a decline in living standards – which are among the highest in Europe.
As Professor Aardal put it; “For a government to be in charge for eight years is very rare in Norway.” In other words, Norway’s voters may think its time for a change.