Party leaders hit the campaign trail

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The leaders of Norway’s political parties are all now launching into summer campaigning, seven weeks ahead of the next parliamentary election on September 11. Even though Norwegians vote for parties rather than people, this election campaign already seems far more personality-oriented than they’ve been in the past.

Jonas Gahr Støre, the Labour Party’s candidate for prime minister, spent Sunday greeting potential voters in Bergen. At left, and new in recent years, is one of the ever-present bodyguards around Norway’s otherwise open and approachable top politicians. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

All the major parties are heavily featuring their leaders, with the Conservatives urging voters to “Join Team Erna” as Prime Minister Erna Solberg already began riding around Norway in a bus emblazoned with her image in late June. Labour’s candidate for prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, was also being heavily promoted as he handed out red roses to potential voters, posed for photos and glad-handed everyone he could in Bergen on Sunday.

Støre’s likely partner in a Labour-led government coalition, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of the Center Party, also launched a summer tour around Norway this weekend in a bus decorated with Norwegian landscapes on its sides, the party’s green clover logo on its front and the bald Vedum’s face grinning from behind. Vedum, whose constituency is rural-oriented and strong on protection for farmers, was heading first to Alta in the far north, with stops planned in Tromsø, Mosjøen, and Nordland before they return south.

The Center Party, keen to form a new left-center government with Labour, is also heavily promoting its leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. The campaign slogan here claims the party, which pits rural against urban areas and fights to secure financial aid for outlying districts of Norway, “has faith in local common sense.” PHOTO: Senterpartiet

“The goal for the tour is to meet folks, discuss issues they’re concerned about and develop our policies,” Vedum told news bureau NTB. His party, which only won 5.5 percent of the vote in the last election, has been riding high at twice that in recent months, although recent polls indicate its growth is tapering off.

Many of the new Center Party supporters are believed by analysts to be coming from Labour, which is desperately trying to prop itself up in the race against Solberg’s Conservative coalition that has included Siv Jensen’s Progress Party since the last election in 2013. It’s been supported by the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, whose leader Trine Skei Grande gave up her summer holiday this year to drum up sagging voter support. Reform-minded voters who want a Conservative coalition to remain in power are worried that the Center Party, which favours protectionist policies and opposes reforms, will have too much influence over Labour if the two eventually team up.

Støre clearly has a tough job ahead of him, with Labour lagging in the polls. Some recent results have been below 30 percent of the vote, the worst in years. Støre thus chose to launch Labour’s election campaign in arch-rival Solberg’s hometown of Bergen, which is now run by a Labour-led city government. From Bergen, Støre intends to keep concentrating on the West- and Southern coasts, traveling on to Os, Haugesund, Karmøy, Stavanger, Sandnes, Kristiansand, Lillesand, Arendal, Risør, Kragerø and Sandefjord this week. “These are areas where we’re in position to win new mandates,” he told NTB, vowing that he’ll be stressing job creation and restructuring to ease the pain of layoffs sparked by the oil price collapse in 2014. He announced plans Monday to spend NOK 1 billion on programs to get more young people into the job market, with most of the money expected to come from taxpayers and businesses.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party hit the campaign trail a few weeks ago, making an appearance here at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival earlier this month. She’s since been taking some time off but then is expected to campaign hard to win re-election in September. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Unemployment, however, has already been declining and business optimism is returning to the areas that traditionally have been heavily oil-industry oriented. Solberg can proudly point to recovery from the crisis that began three years ago, and renewed economic growth, also along the hard-hit West Coast. Støre nonetheless insists that the total numbers of fully employed Norwegians aged 17 to 65 continues to decline, and that economic differences are becoming more visible among Norwegians.

Støre, who comes from a wealthy family himself, has also made some blunders of late, hastily having to withdraw from a housing project he’d invested in after newspaper Dagbladet revealed that its developer lacked collective bargaining agreements. Then he seemed, in an interview with newspaper Aftenposten earlier this summer, to compare himself to France’s Emmanual Macron. That set off a retort from Solberg’s foreign minister, Børge Brende, who claimed that the only thing Støre and Macron have in common is that they both speak French.

Brende argued that while Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are keen to revive the EU, Labour under Støre has toned down its earlier support for the EU, likely in order to appease the firmly anti-EU Center Party and Labour’s more left-wing factions. While Macron is urging lower taxes, stronger businesses and more innovation, Brende pointed out that Støre is keen to raise taxes by at least NOK 15 billion over the next four years. While Macron is reform-minded, Støre and the Center Party are already threatening to reverse municipal, regional and other reforms launched by Solberg’s government. While Macron wants to loosen up labour laws to make it easier for young people to get jobs, Støre also wants to reverse recent changes and tighten labour laws again.

The debate died down over the weekend when newspaper Aftenposten editorialized that both Brende and Støre were engaging in too much navel-gazing and should be addressing more important issues, like how they’ll deal with “dangerous” leaders in Russia and the US, the ongoing war in Syria, climate threats, rising threats to democratic values in Eastern Europe and the ongoing trouble in Ukraine. By Monday, Macron himself was losing support in public opinion polls, with commentators claiming his honeymoon was already over.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund