Pre-election debate baffles voters

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One of the first major debates among the leaders of Norway’s political parties has confirmed serious splits on both sides of the political spectrum. It remains unclear which parties might ultimately be able to agree on forming a new government, but it’s very clear indeed that taxes are a major issue in the upcoming national election.

Norwegians have often been fond of claiming that they pay their taxes “med glede” (with pleasure). New public opinion polls suggest that’s not so true anymore, and the segment involving taxation in Monday night’s nationally televised party debate was among the liveliest.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv reported earlier this summer that there’s “massive opposition” to more tax hikes after this fall’s election. Relatively heavy taxation created Norway’s social welfare state, but a poll conducted by research firm Synovate for the Norwegian taxpayers’ association (Skattebetalerforeningen) indicates individual taxpayers have grown weary of the tax burden.

Fully 83 percent of those questioned said taxes and fees on various services shouldn’t be increased after the September 14 election. The strongest opposition was found among voters over age 60, persons with mid-range incomes and persons who traditionally vote for non-socialist parties.

Around 60 percent of those questioned said the various parties’ platforms on taxes and tax hikes will influence their choices at the polling place.Only the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) and the Conservatives (Høyre) have said they want to lower taxes, while most of the other parties say they would maintain current levels. The Socialist Left (SV), which forms part of the current left-center government coalition, proposes raising taxes yet again to help redistribute income in the country.

Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg, fighting hard to keep his job as Prime Minister, claimed that “tax cuts mean welfare cuts.” He accused the Progress Party of “cutting billions” every day as the election campaign progresses, without offering new sources of income to fund existing services. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who wants Stoltenberg’s job, scoffed at the charge. Her party’s platform has long advocated using more of Norway’s oil revenues to invest in state infrastructure.

Both Jensen and Conservatives leader Erna Solberg agreed on the need for tax relief, with Solberg saying “normal people” pay too much tax at present. Lower taxes can help safeguard jobs, she argued, adding the “it’s also ‘welfare’ to let people keep more of their money.”

Splits on both sides

The current three-party government coalition remains seriously split on such issues as oil drilling off Lofoten (SV and the Center Party oppose it, Labour claims it hasn’t made up its mind), membership in the EU (SV and Sp oppose it, Stoltenberg favors it) and taxes (SV wants to raise some, Labour and Sp want to hold the line).

While Jensen of Frp and Solberg of the Conservatives agreed on several issues, the non-socialist parties remain split themselves. Solberg clearly hopes they can come to terms but Liberal Party (Venstre) leader Lars Sponheim, who only has support from about 5 percent of the voters, repeated that he won’t back a government including Frp. Jensen retorted that she hoped “the 95 percent of Norwegian voters who don’t support Lars Sponheim’s party” won’t let him be the deciding factor.

The live debate was animated and surprisingly friendly, but didn’t provide much insight into what might happen after polls close September 14. Much will be left to tactics and power plays among the parties based on election results. The Conservatives and the Progress Party may gather enough votes to form their own government, without having to deal with the Liberals or the Christian Democrats. Labour may get enough votes to rule alone, or the existing coalition could continue.

Jens vs Jensen

It remains wide open. Adding to the confusion came news that while Siv Jensen’s Progress Party is the second-largest in the land, only 16 percent of voters prefer her as prime minister. Fully 42 percent want Stoltenberg to continue in the post. Only 6 percent favoured the Conservatives’ Solberg.

Nearly 30 percent were “uncertain.” Which pretty much sums up the situation 26 days before the election, even though the non-socialist parties have a majority. Their inability to settle their own differences could leave Labour in power.