In Norway, calls for the prime minister to step down

The calls come in the wake of condemnatory findings by the July 22 commission, which investigated last year's Breivik massacre.

Anette Karlsen/NTB Scanpix/REUTERS
Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg looks on during a news conference in Oslo August 13, 2012.

Something odd is happening in Norway. The same country that was admired worldwide for its civil response to the horrific twin terror attacks last July by Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik now appears bent on justice. 

Per Sandberg, Progress Party deputy leader and head of the parliamentary justice committee, has suggested that Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, would have been forced to accept responsibility for the failings on July 22, 2011 that led to 77 deaths and step down if he had led a minority-coalition government. Even some families of the Labor party youths who were killed in Mr. Breivik’s shooting rampage on the island of Utøya, as well as the editorial page of Norway’s largest daily newspaper Verdens Gang, are urging for Mr. Stoltenberg to resign. 

So what has changed in the one year since the attacks to make Norwegian society more impatient with the current government’s handling of the tragedy? 

The tipping point seems to be the 22 July Commission’s damning 482-page report, released yesterday. The report, requested by Stoltenberg himself, found that his office was entangled in a bickering war with the ministries of justice and government administration for seven years over the closure of the main street in the government complex to vehicle traffic. 

The street was found in 2004 to be vulnerable to a car bomb attack that could substantially damage the series of government buildings tightly packed in the Oslo quarter. Stoltenberg even wrote a memo in 2007 saying it was not a pressing issue. 

The commission concluded that the abrogation of responsibility enabled Breivik to easily park a van laden with fertilizer explosives in front of Stoltenberg’s office, killing eight, wounding hundreds, and damaging the office complex beyond repair. Shortly thereafter, Breivik drove to Utøya and hunted down youths at Labor’s political summer camp, eventually killing 69 people in the country’s worst peacetime tragedy. 

First public outcry

The current calls for accountability mark the first time there has been such a public outcry since the attacks. Norwegians have mostly rallied around Stoltenberg and his Labor party, which was the subject of Breivik’s politically motivated attacks. Breivik claims Labor has caused the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians via its lenient pro-Muslim immigration policies. 

The prime minister seems to regard the sudden change in sentiment as so worrisome that he has called for – and been granted – a special parliamentary meeting to present his plans for enacting the changes recommended by the commission. 

Blame to go around

The question is whether there is enough outrage over the failings to warrant his removal, given that others also share culpability. The commission’s report pointed out numerous mistakes by local police that day, as well as the national police security service’s failure to catch Breivik during his years’ long planning stage. 

Stoltenberg maintains that he is accepting responsibility for the attacks by acting on the recommendations of the commission. But Harald Stanghelle, political editor of Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, argues that it is difficult for the man responsible for the series of failures leading up to the attack be the right man to better the situation.

Other Norwegian prime ministers have been forced to resign over less. Stoltenberg himself knows that, after ousting former PM Kjell Magne Bondevik in 2000 over gas-fired power plants. But Stoltenberg’s center-left government holds a majority in parliament and cannot be thrown out. 

Some Norwegian political commentators also say it would be politically irresponsible for Stoltenberg to step down now and throw the country into crisis. The next chance for change would be national elections next September.

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