Christian Democrats juggle temptations

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Knut Arild Hareide and his Christian Democrats party lost voters in Norway’s parliamentary election last week, but they’ve been startled by the prospects of more power and glory than anyone thought possible. Now it’s up to Hareide to juggle the temptations of ministerial posts in a conservative majority government coalition, or the powerful swing vote on all issues coming before Parliament.

Knut Arild Hareide has been surprised to find himself in a powerful position even after his Christian Democrats party suffered its worst election results ever. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Hareide “is really the election’s winner,” noted Kjetil B Alstadheim, political commentator for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend. “But he’s seldom seemed so miserable.” Like several other parties and players, Hareide’s Christian Democrats both won and lost last week’s election: It won the strategically important vippeposisjonen (swing vote authority) in Parliament that can decide whether a minority government led by the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Erna Solberg will survive or fall. At the same time, the Christian Democrats suffered one of their worst election results ever, claiming just 4.2 percent of the vote and losing two seats in Parliament.

Now Hareide’s party faces an identity crisis as well as it struggles to determine whether its loyalties lie on the right or the left, after having spent years in the center. That leaves Hareide in a terrible squeeze. “He leads a beaten party that lacks both a plan and direction,” Alstadheim claims.

Dizzying power already
The power Hareide now has is thus dizzying already, and party members are quarreling internally over whose kingdom, power and glory they should stake out. They all wanted the Conservatives’ Solberg to become prime minister and Hareide has promised not to topple her government, at least not for the first few months. But he also vowed not to join or support a government that includes Solberg’s one firm partner, the even more conservative Progress Party. The Christian Democrats don’t like Progress’ tough restrictions on immigration and asylum, their promotion of market liberalization and bullishness on the oil industry, for example. The two parties’ politics in general are simply too different, Hareide has claimed, to rule together.

Yet his party, along with the Liberals, supported the same Conservatives-Progress government that Solberg formed with Siv Jensen four years ago and it survived the entire term. They all, including Progress, found compromises and Solberg kept her team together. Jensen has even referred to her Progress Party as just a “junior partner” in the last government with Conservatives. All four non-socialist parties won more votes in the 2013 election, though, so Solberg only needed support on thorny issues from either the Liberals or Christian Democrats. This time around she needs them both.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (right) wants Knut Arild Hareide and his Christian Democrats in a new four-party non-socialist government she’s keen to form. PHOTO: Høyre

That’s what’s led to speculation that Solberg will tempt Hareide with powerful ministerial posts in a new coalition she wants to form with all four parties, maybe even the post as foreign minister, about to be vacated by the Conservatives’ Børge Brende. Hareide would thus be able to dramatically boost his party’s profile and have more direct say on proposed legislation, from important climate and environmental matters to immigration and asylum. Some are already urging that since Hareide’s party couldn’t beat the Progress Party out of the government, it had best join them, and use its swing vote power there. It also gives them and other climate-friendly, environmentally oriented parties their best chance of preventing oil drilling and production off the scenic northern coasts of Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, and curbing the oil industry in general.

It’s all about how a small swing party can best exert its influence and regain prominence. Vebjørn Selbekk, editor of the Christian-oriented newspaper and website Dagen, has claimed the Christian Democrats have been through a “near-death experience” (almost losing representation in Parliament) and at the same time are now merely a “Bible-belt” party with nearly all its Members of Parliament from the allegedly “Christian” areas of southwest Norway. Others object, but the party clearly is struggling to find its way. While some party members want to turn left, and form a majority with Labour and the Center Party, for example, the prospect of that soured Labour voters and horrified many of Hareide’s followers as well. They see themselves as firmly non-socialist.

Pressure in opposition
Party members voted last spring that if they failed to win a majority with just the Conservatives and the Liberals, they’d probably retreat into opposition but not as part of a Labour-Center-Socialist Left coalition. That would put huge pressure on the Christian Democrats on a daily basis, however, since their swing vote could determine the outcome of every single issue that comes along. As Alstadheim put it, “Hareide can end up swinging back and forth so much that he’ll suffer from motion sickness.”

Arne Strand, commentator in the left-center friendly newspaper Dagsavisen, put a more positive spin on it. “Hareide will be a very popular man,” Strand wrote. “Both the government and the opposition will come to his group in Parliament for support. The party would be in the spotlight like never before.”

The glare may be too great, though, for Hareide and his colleagues. They’ll also be just a pawn in other parties’ power plays. And many object to Strand’s assessment that within the government, they’ll be shot down time and again by the Progress Party. Its leader, Siv Jensen, will more likely be motivated to hold the government together and, in a second term, be more willing to cooperate and compromise than ever before.

It may take time for Hareide to make a decision which side he’ll take at the outset. Discussions among the four parties are due to begin later this week. Parliament reopens, though, in early October. Solberg will need to have her team in place shortly after presenting the budget on October 12. Berglund