NEWS ANALYSIS: An unwavering demand from one of Norway’s smallest political parties has relaunched a heated debate over abortion, and raised questions about just how democratic Norway’s democracy really is. It all shows how a party with less than 6 percent of the vote can impose its will on the vast majority, set off a huge government fuss in the process, and probably get away with it.
Just a week after Norway’s new Conservatives-led government was celebrating its first 100 days in office, it found it had painted itself into a corner and was under relentless assault by the opposition. Gone was the glow from candles on a cake and a boost from the latest public opinion poll. Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her health minister, Bent Høie, headed into the weekend fending off the unwelcome effects of an agreement they made last autumn with the small Christian Democrats party over abortion referrals, and how they tried to implement it.
The fallout has been dominating Norwegian media, with some commentators claiming that it can actually threaten Solberg’s government coalition made up of her Conservative Party (Høyre) and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp). Their problem is that they lack a clear majority in parliament. They constantly need the support of at least one other party in parliament to usher in new laws.
So last autumn, they entered into negotiations with two small parties, the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) and the Liberals (Venstre), in an effort to secure their support on various issues. The honeymoon is now clearly over, and one of the agreements struck with the Christian Democrats has come back to haunt them.
Fury over the Christian Democrats’ demand,
but Conservatives get the blame
At issue is a demand from the Christian Democrats that doctors opposed to abortion can not only refuse to perform abortions but also, in an initiative that’s infuriated abortion rights activists, refuse to issue abortion referrals. Their demand has reopened old wounds by stirring up debate over an issue thought settled long ago. Women in Norway have, and will continue to have, an absolute right to obtain an abortion, politicians hastily assured. The Christian Democrats claim they simply want to allow doctors to “be able to follow their conscience” and opt out if they want.
Opponents fear that will leave women seeking an abortion in an uncomfortable position. Hardly anyone supports the Christian Democrats’ demand, with opposition parties like Labour and the Socialist Left blasting it outright. A majority within both the Conservatives and the Progress Party also object, as does their other “support party” in Parliament, the Liberals. Solberg admitted under pressure in parliament last week that she never wanted what’s called the “reservasjonsrett” for doctors either, and even a vast majority of the Conservatives’ own mayors around the country are opposed, as are nearly all others.
Their voices are important, because in a controversial move, Solberg and Høie had not only bowed to the Christian Democrats’ demand for reservasjonsrett, to secure their support on other issues in Parliament, but then opted to allow local governments to honour it or not. Things got more heated and complicated for Solberg on Friday when local media reported that a vast majority of local governments around Norway don’t want to take on that responsibility. They want such an important law change to be decided and enforced at a national level.
So now everyone is upset and blaming the Conservatives for striking the deal with the Christians Democrats and then trying to water it down. The Christian Democrats are also angry, because they thought they’d won a major victory during state government negotiations last fall, only to see it undermined by the possibility that local governments can turn down doctors’ rights to opt out of abortion referrals. The Christian Democrats are also aware that if Solberg and Progress Party leader Siv Jensen allow their members in parliament to vote their consciences, just like the Christian Democrats insist doctors should be allowed to, the measure will surely fail at the national level before it even gets to the local level. Some reporters have at least questioned whether the Christian Democrats’ demand that Solberg and Jensen crack the party whip is hypocritical. They claim it’s not.
The Christian Democrats also seem undaunted by the overwhelming lack of support for their initiative, yet intent on cramming it down the throats of everyone. Interestingly, Norwegian media haven’t been questioning them about why they’re so keen to ignore the will of the people. Arne Strand, veteran commentator in newspaper Dagsavisen, did note on Saturday how “a party with 5.6 percent of the vote was able to push through the reservasjonsrett that 77 percent of voters oppose,” according to a recent poll conducted by TV2. Yet Strand also observed that the Christian Democrats were “of course delighted” and that their refusal to budge on the issue may in fact win them more support, while members of the Conservative Party may well feel let down by their leaders and defect.
As the political and media storm raged over abortion referrals and whether Norway’s taxpayer-funded doctors should formally be allowed to reserve the right not to make them, the Christian Democrats seemed to not only be getting away with imposing their minority will on the majority but gaining on the publicity. That can happen, despite Norway’s much-exalted democracy, because it’s part of the system. Norway’s small parties have long had power that’s way out of proportion to their voter support, as witnessed by the small Center Party and Socialist Left gaining control over several powerful ministries in the last left-center government even though they only won just over 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 election. The dominant Labour Party was forced to let them have some say, in order to gain a majority in Parliament.
Solberg needs that same majority, since her Conservatives and the Progress Party lack it on their own. Now their highly controversial concession on abortion referrals will go to hearing, and then more negotiations with the Christian Democrats will likely be needed. She and Høie need some way to get out of their corner with their dignity and government intact. On Sunday, newspaper Aftenposten reported that Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang of the Conservatives has proposed that doctors currently employed by the public sector be allowed to opt out of abortion referrals, but not new hires. He’s among those who never wanted the Christian Democrats’ reservasjonsrett in the first place either, but is trying to find a solution to the current impasse.
Høie told newspaper Aftenposten that the issue has gone to hearing and all initiatives will be heard. The Christian Democrats claim they welcome all initiatives. They’re not sorry that they launched an initiative that has kicked up such a fuss and remains unwanted by the majority. That seems plainly un-democratic at best.