NEWS ANALYSIS: Brimming with self-confidence as they head into the September parliamentary election, members of Norway’s Center Party gathered for a party indeed at their recent annual national meeting in Trondheim. So bold has the anti-EU, anti-urban and anti-reform party become that it even stole the slogan of the rival Conservative Party that leads the current government, as members plotted how to snatch government power as well with around 10 percent of the vote.
They still lack support from around 90 percent of Norwegian voters who oppose the Center Party’s protectionist policies and especially their campaign to hunt predators like wolves in Norway. As several political commentators pointed out during the weekend, though, the Center Party is acting as if it has a majority already. Its leaders’ plan is to team up with the Labour Party and form a new left-center government with the aim of fighting what their very name implies: centralization.
Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold slammed centralization so many times during the weekend that Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) aired a parody of his soundbites on national radio Monday morning. He vowed to continue fighting all efforts to reform and “centralize” Norway’s state hospital system, its police, its local and county governments, its farms and even its civil defense, all of which the current government claims will cut costs and boost competence. As newspaper Aftenposten wrote before Center’s party began, its members want public services located close to residents all over the country, regardless of what that costs and despite warnings that those costs will keep growing and threaten the entire nation’s social welfare system.
“The Conservatives say they ‘believe in Norway,'” declared Vedum in his opening remarks while proudly standing before a sign that translates into “we believe in ALL of Norway.” He admitted to snatching the slogan himself, after following the Conservatives’ own national meeting two weeks ago where Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke in front of a ‘Vi tror på Norge’ (‘We believe in Norway’) sign and repeated the phrase several times. “First we take their voters, then we take their slogan, then we take the government,” one of Vedum’s closest advisers reportedly told Aftenposten with a grin.
“They only believe in parts of Norway,” alleged Vedum. “The Conservatives should have written: ‘We believe a little in Norway, and more in the EU.'”
As the election campaign heats up, Vedum is showing no signs of cooling down his constant attacks on Solberg’s minority government coalition with the Progress Party. Many, like commentator Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen, argue the government has served up a long list of policies ripe for Vedum and his Center Party to attack, such as its proposals for police, municipal and agriculture reforms.
While it’s easy to see all the policies the Center Party is against, it’s harder to see what it’s for, or how it intends to sustain Norway’s social welfare state at a time of huge economic and technological change. The Center Party has a long record of resisting change, and Vedum avoided any mention in his opening speech of major issues like the refugee crisis, climate change or the future of the oil industry.
Those issues did come up in various ways as the party hammered out its new program ahead of the election campaign’s formal launch. Some voices of moderation prevailed during the weekend, as deputy leader (and former Oil Minister) Ola Borten Moe’s proposal to eliminate incentives for the purchases of high-end electric cars failed as did his proposals to ban religious dress that covers the entire face and body and restrict funding for religious organizations based only on their membership rosters of Norwegian citizens. Many found such proposals overly “anti-elitist” and nationalistic. Moe’s objections to current electric car incentives were also viewed as a conflict of interest, since he now works in the oil business.
The party also voted against Moe’s proposal, as head of the party’s program committee, to start charging college and university tuition to foreign students who, like Norwegians, can currently study for free. If that had passed, it ironically could have given the Conservatives-led government the majority it’s long needed to do the same. It didn’t happen, though, and foreign students can continue to study tuition-free in Norway.
The Center Party headed into its national meeting armed with a new public opinion poll, conducted for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), showing its highest recent level of voter support yet at 12.3 percent. That was more than the Progress Party, which dipped to 10.8 percent, and seemed to make the Center Party Norway’s third-largest. Opinion is sharply mixed, however, on whether it will maintain such a level (more than twice its election result of 5.5 percent in 2013) until the election on September 11. Its traditional policies of wanting to hunt predators that threaten ranchers, keep tariff protection and food prices as high as possible to support its farming constituency and pit rural areas against urban centers do not appeal to many voters.
Demands on Labour
And now the Center Party is making it clear it will demand even more in a new Labour-led government coalition than it did when it shared government power with Labour and the Socialist Left parties from 2005 to 2013. Election analysts have noted how Center is already taking votes from Labour, and some Labour Party members worry they’d have to make far too many concessions in a new coalition if Center is twice as big as it was earlier. While Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre recently told DN he doesn’t see Center as being a “burden” on its own program, there’s cause for concern given the following statement from a Center Party delegate from Finnmark during the weekend: “We have to get so big that we can decide over the Labour Party. Right now, they decide too much over us.”
NRK reported that Labour and Center have already reached a “mutual understanding” that Center won’t demand scrapping Norway’s market access deal with the EU (the EØS-avtale), even though it strongly opposes it. The two have also reportedly agreed, among other things, on ongoing agricultural subsidies and protection and they may reverse municipal reform if it’s been forced upon the local governments involved.
‘Peaking too early’
Støre admitted, though, that Center “will have more influence” if its election results are strong. Others think (or hope) that Center has peaked early and won’t be able to hold on to the 10-12 percent it’s logging in various polls.
“They’ve gotten into form much too early,” Harald Tom Nesvik, parliamentary leader for the Progress Party, told DN. “Soon all the critical questions will come about how they say one thing, but in practice do something else.” He was referring to how, as Aftenposten reported on Friday, the number of farms in Norway fell sharply during the Center Party’s eight years in government, as did even the number of cows. “And what will happen,” Nesvik mused, “when the numbers keep showing strong economies in the districts and along the coast, support for our national transport plan (much of which benefits outlying areas) and how food production has increased?” He claimed the current government’s policies are working, also in rural areas.
The Center Party has fizzled out before, not least after it won the battle to keep Norway out of the EU in 1994 but lost the war for ongoing power. It plummeted in the polls and had been in the mid-single digits until just the past few months. Now, as Center Party members spoke seriously over the weekend about using drones to find and shoot more wolves, their rise may lead to new howls of protest from voters. “The Center Party wants to put the brakes on needed change,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. “And their party program is costly,” implying higher fees and taxes to cover it.
“Reforms have their weaknesses and must be adjusted along the way,” Aftenposten continued. “But there’s a difference between that and to utterly reject the need for them, as the Center Party does. The hope is that party pragmatism will click in, if it gets into government.”