Liberals dream of reshuffling coalition

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande launched her dream of rearranging the members of Norway’s ruling government coalition while the leaders of both coalition parties were out of the country last weekend. Grande wants her party to replace the conservative Progress Party in government, but her plan turned out to be just a bit too grand.

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande shared her dream of a new government coalition over the weekend that would have the Liberals replacing the Progress Party. It was quickly shattered. PHOTO: Venstre/Jo Straube

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande shared her dream of a new government coalition over the weekend that would have the Liberals replacing the Progress Party. It was just a bit too grand. PHOTO: Venstre/Jo Straube

Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, who was in Washington DC to attend the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund, shattered Grande’s dream just as soon as she landed back on Norwegian soil. The two women have been friends as well as political rivals for years, but Jensen made it clear her party isn’t about to give up its spot in government to support a new minority coalition that would include the Liberals.

“Our standpoint is very firm,” Jensen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) right after flying home from the US. “We won’t support any government that we’re not a part of.”

Grande’s Liberal Party (Venstre), along with Christian Democrats, does support the current minority coalition led by the Conservatives with the Progress Party as its partner. Grande’s dream, as unveiled at her party’s annual meeting in Tønsberg over the weekend, is to replace the Progress Party and form a new non-socialist coalition with the Conservatives and the Christian Democrats, with support from the Progress Party. Jensen’s message: “Forget it.”

For one thing, both Jensen’s party and Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives are doing well in public opinion polls at present, with solid voter support. Solberg herself has emerged once again as the preferred prime minister and the Progress Party has won respect after years of being on the outside of political power.

Grande’s Liberals, meanwhile, are struggling in the polls and currently have support from just over 4 percent of Norway’s voters. That’s dangerously close to the minimum needed just to win representation in Parliament.

The Liberals' leadership trio at the party's annual meeting last weekend: Ola Elvestuen (left), Terje Breivik and Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Venstre/Jo Straube

The Liberals’ leadership trio at the party’s annual meeting last weekend: Ola Elvestuen (left), Terje Breivik and Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Venstre/Jo Straube

Even if support grows between now and next year’s national election in September, it’s unlikely the Liberals will win anywhere near the 17-18 percent that Jensen’s Progress Party now holds. And even if the Liberals were to team up with the Conservatives and Christian Democrats, they collectively would be such a minority coalition that Labour could topple them by teaming up with parties on the socialist side of the spectrum.

Grande thus seems unusually self-confident in even daring to unveil her plan for a coalition. “Wishful thinking,” according to political commentators who noted that her plan relies on Jensen voluntarily giving up government power. Grande was undaunted.

“Erna Solberg didn’t run on a campaign platform (in 2013) of a purely conservative government,” Grande noted. “She campaigned for a four-party government coalition. And it’s Erna who decides who will be in the government if we point to her as prime minister.”

Opposition from afar
The Conservatives’ boss and Norwegian premier was off on official trips to Singapore and South Korea last week, so was also far away when Grande spoke to her party faithful in Tønsberg. Solberg’s deputy leader, Jan Tore Sanner, was as quick as Jensen in shattering Grande’s coalition dream.

He noted how Solberg has made it clear she doesn’t want to dump the Progress Party, not least because she and Jensen run the coalition rather well together. Sanner rejected any plans for the Conservatives to swap the Progress Party with the centrist Liberals and Christian Democrats.

“A non-socialist majority (of voters) will yield a non-socialist government,” Sanner told DN, apparently excluding the Liberals as a clearly non-socialist party because, like most of Norway’s small parties, they’ll compromise and cooperate with whichever parties give them the best return. Sanner added that the Conservatives wouldn’t swap their support parties either.

Christian ‘cowards’
Despite the Liberals’ dissatisfaction with the Progress Party in government, few if any of their delegates during the annual meeting seemed to prefer a Labour-led government coalition. Several also expressed dissatisfaction with the Christian Democrats, claiming they had  “acted like cowards” on several big issues like national hospital reform, leaving the Liberals to take the heat on restructuring that resulted in the pending closure of some local hospitals. Some Liberal politicians think the Christian Democrats are trying to win more voters away from the Center Party in rural areas, with vague plans to join forces with Labour in a new left-center coalition.

The Progress Party, meanwhile, was preparing for its own annual meeting this weekend, which will put them on a new collision course with the Liberals over fuel prices at the pump. The Liberals want to signicantly boost taxes on gasoline (petrol), to discourage driving for climate and environmental, while the Progress Party is firmly opposed to tax hikes, especially on fuel. They’ll be meeting at a hotel near Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund