Small parties are the mice that roar

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The leader of Norway’s Christian Democrats party has proven once again that small political parties like his like to think big. This weekend it’s Knut Arild Hareide’s turn to rally his troops, and he launched the Christian Democrats’ national meeting by calling for nothing less than a change in government, and forming a new one that they should be part of, even with only 5 percent of the vote.

Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide played both sides of the political spectrum during his opening address at the party’s annual national meeting in Trondheim on Thursday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“The Christian Democrats will head into the election (in September) on the grounds that Norway needs a new government,” Hareide all but shouted to his party faithful gathered in Trondheim from Thursday through Sunday.

No matter that his party has had an agreement to support the current Conservatives-led government for the past four years. Now, as one of Norway’s small centrist parties, he wants to dissolve that minority coalition that includes the Conservatives and the Progress Party and form a new government without Progress. He seems undaunted that Progress still has roughly three times as many voters as his party has. Hareide’s bold first choice is a non-socialist coalition government with Conservatives’ leader Erna Solberg remaining as prime minister, but with just his Christian Democrats and the Liberals (another, even smaller, centrist party) as her government partners.

Provided they all get enough votes, of course. That’s unlikely, with both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats claiming only around 4-5 percent of the vote (or even less) in recent public polls. The Liberals have lost so much support that they may wind up with only two seats in Parliament after the September election.

Hareide thus doesn’t seem opposed to joining the socialist opposition led by Labour and, more recently, the resurgent Center Party that’s already teaming up with Labour in a left-center coalition, if that would give Hareide and his Christian Democrats more influence. Both Labour and Center have been courting his favour and the swing votes Hareide’s party may provide to give them a majority, but it would be a dramatic change for the Christian Democrats to side with the socialists over the non-socialists, and one that’s stirring internal party debate and unease.

So Hareide is playing hard to get, and his address to party fellows on Thursday clearly reflected that. It contained both support and objections to both sides. After criticizing Solberg’s government for proposing “anti-social” budgets, having a much-too-weak climate commitment and especially trying to reform agriculture and being too consumer-oriented for farmers and rural residents who demand protectionism, he hailed Solberg herself. He even quoted his own mother as saying that “no one could do a better job as prime minister than Erna Solberg has done.”

Hareide spoke under the party’s slogan that promotes “values that last, values that are warm.” PHOTO: Kristelig Folkeparti

Just a few minutes earlier in his speech, he’d chided Labour for being so bullish on the oil industry, for voting at its own meeting last weekend against retaining Christianity as a separate part of the curriculum in public schools, and for not placing family values high enough. He even claimed that the former Labour-led left-center government that included the farmer-friendly Center Party “did very little” to decentralize and spur more job creation in rural areas. He thinks the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, through their support deal with the current government, can claim credit for hindering more centralization and moving some public-sector jobs from the cities to the districts.

He made a big point of claiming that the Christian Democrats “are on the districts’ side.” It was unclear whether he was thus cozying up to the Center Party and its coalition plans with Labour, or whether Hareide was simply trying to keep his party’s voters from defecting to Center after months of rural revolt. “We want a government that supports the districts,” Hareide exclaimed from the podium. “That’s why we want to join government.”

In the end it was clear how Hareide was playing both sides and keeping his options open, for whichever political alliance will best suit the Christian Democrats’ interests and give them the most power. It can seem remarkable that a party with support from only around 5 percent of the voters can be so brash, make so many demands and even wield a lot of power, but that’s exactly what he and the Liberals and the Center Party do all the time.

They can, after all, cast the critical votes that can sway major issues, like whether oil companies should or should not be allowed to launch operations in the rich fishing grounds off Lofoten, or in the sensitive Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. Right now, it looks like only the small parties can keep the seas off Lofoten oil-free, since Labour, the Conservatives and Progress are all willing to open them to oil exploration. On Friday, the incoming head of one of Norway’s largest trade union federations representing oil workers, Industri Energi, joined oil industry promoters by calling on the big parties to push through a measure allowing exploration off Lofoten now, to prevent the Christian Democrats and other small parties from halting it. Frode Alfheim told news bureau ANB that “we can’t afford” to let that happen.

Several other top politicians in the Christian Democrats now think their party should stop “only looking to the right” and consider supporting or joining a Labour-led government. “If we’re a centrist party that can cooperate with both sides, then maybe the time has come now, to cooperate with Labour,” said Ole Døvik from Vestfold’s party chapter.

“On the left-center side, I think both party leaders (of Labour and Center) are willing to listen to our views,” Døvik said from the podium. He also noted that the leaders of Labour wanted Christianity to remain part of public schools’ curriculum. It was Labour’s rank and file that wanted to drop it.

As the Christian Democrats meet and hammer out their platform heading into the election, they all seemed to agree that Norway is best-served with the strongest possible centrist-oriented government. Others think exactly the opposite, that the small center parties are noisy voices that hinder major political change. It’s ultimately up to the voters to decide whether they should support the mice that roar. Right now, Hareide’s party faithful, who are being courted by both the right and the left, are in a position to roar the loudest.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund