Solberg wins nod over Stoltenberg

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Few Norwegians need a Christmas holiday to revive and cheer them up more than Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, after one of the most challenging years in his lengthy political career. Both he and his Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) continue to trail in public opinion polls, and now his arch rival in the biggest opposition party, The Conservative Party (Høyre),  has scored another knockout.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, shown here meeting reporters at the July 22 memorial last summer, has had a rough year, and now faces a rough election campaign in the year ahead. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

After dealing with the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attacks and an autumn full of scandal and even the death of his mother, Stoltenberg woke up Wednesday to new polls showing Conservatives leader Erna Solberg as the people of Norway’s clear favourite to take over his job.

Fully 48 percent say they would prefer Solberg as their new prime minister after parliamentary elections next year. That’s 5 percentage points higher than Stoltenberg’s score of 43 percent, and well within the so-called “margin of error” for the first time, according to a new poll conducted by analysis firm Respons for newspaper Aftenposten.

“For a long time, Jens scored higher as prime minister than his red-green coalition government did, because of his personal popularity,” elections expert Anders Todal Jenssen told Aftenposten. “It looks like he’s getting close to the red-green bottom.”

Solberg’s jump in the new poll may be explained partly by a smaller number of undecided voters. Those supporting the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) may have backed Solberg, as there were only two options in the poll; Solberg or Stoltenberg. Frp’s own official candidate for prime minister, party leader Siv Jensen, was not included as an alternative.

Ready to take over as prime minister of Norway is the head of the Conservative Party, Erna Solberg, shown here at a party meeting earlier this year. PHOTO: Høyre

Change in image
Solberg said the fresh poll made for nice reading. “I see high expectations for a change of government,” she told Aftenposten, adding that as the most likely candidate from the opposition parties, she stood to benefit from this.

Jenssen said Solberg’s positive change in image partly can explain her rise in popularity among Norwegians. Solberg, who used to be called “iron-Erna,” presents herself as more inclusive now, and talks more about welfare and less about money, he said.

Jenssen also said this change is more about the growing dissatisfaction with the coalition government Stoltenberg leads than just a rise in Solberg’s popularity.

Another election expert, Professor Frank Aarebrot, said another explanation as to why Solberg is leading in the new poll is that she is mainly in the public eye in matters that are positive for her, while Stoltenberg has had to deal with a lot of negative issues lately and is thus on the defensive.

Still the ladies’ man
Stoltenberg is still the favourite of young women, the poll showed, while Solberg is the top choice of older men.

“We’re pleased Jens is still the most popular among young voters,” Natalie Hellesø-Milde, leader of Labour Party´s Youth Group in Bergen (AUF), told newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT). She believes Norway’s strong economy and low unemployment, compared to the situation in large parts of Europe, is important for young people.

“Young people are also focused on school politics and elderly care,” Hellesø-Milde said. “I think young people to a larger degree want common welfare solutions, and not privatization.”

Solberg herself believes Stoltenberg’s effect on young people may be explained by the fact that many do not remember a time without him as their prime minister, since he’s held the post for the last seven years. She conceded to Aftenposten, though, that “maybe Jens Stoltenberg has a fresher and more youthful style than I do, I’m not sure.”

Getting out the vote
Stoltenberg’s challenge now is to get these young supporters to actually vote on Election Day next September, since turnout among them is significantly lower than with other groups of voters.

Stoltenberg, still a popular man in Norway, is set on continuing his red-green coalition project, which could this time be his downfall. His partners, the small Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV) and The Center Party (Senterpartiet Sp), keep losing voter support and Stoltenberg therefore risks sending voters to the opposition by continuing to make compromises with SV and especially Sp on major issues. The Conservatives and the Progress Party, the two biggest parties from the opposition, may together be able to form a government alone, in which Solberg would likely become prime minister and Jensen finance minister.

Since the social welfare state is heavily supported by Norwegian voters, with deep roots in the culture, and since ideological differences among the parties are relatively small, it has been debated how much actual change a shift in power will mean for Norway. Stoltenberg, also faced with a lower scorecard in newspaper Dagsavisen, which traditionally has backed Labour, needs to make the differences more visible and prove over the next eight months that he and his coalition deserve another four years.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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