The annual conference of the greatly reduced Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig folkeparti, Krf), which took place this weekend, saw the official beginning of their new leader’s reign and key decisions regarding rules concerning the faith of its elected members – two decisions which are designed to renew the party’s fortunes.
Once a key party in Norway from which governments were formed and prime ministers were picked, KrF have bombed over the past decade and managed just 5.5 percent of the vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections, its lowest total since before the war. Attempts to improve the party’s image have been underway ever since their under-fire former leader Dagfinn Høybråten resigned last year, with his successor, Knut Arild Hareide, officially sworn in as new leader at the conference.
‘Many results’ but ‘many regrets’
When elected in 2004, Høybråten promised that the party would be “clearer but not narrower” and “stand on the side of the poor and the sick.” Høybråten believes he has improved the party’s “social profile,” with evidence from opinion polls that greater numbers of people associate the party with the weaker in society. He admitted that there would be “several opinions” about the other aspects of his leadership. He suggested to Aftenposten that one difficulty in appealing to a broader base has been the “very strong” challenges presented by government policies against traditional areas of KrF interest, such as on the issues of marriage law and Christian objects clauses in schools and kindergartens.
His leadership style has been publicly criticized by many in the party over the last year, including Inger Lise Hansen, who until recently was the party’s deputy leader and complained of ill-treatment. Speaking to newspaper Aftenposten before the party conference, Høybråten again commented that he had “no intention of getting into a public argument on this.” He said “I gave my best, and have many results to show,” but admitted that he had “many” regrets and did not want to “come forward with an interpretation that I succeeded with everything as leader because it is obvious for everyone that I have not.”
Høybråten will leave politics in two years when his current term as a member of parliament is complete. He has been a health minister, and work and social minister, in two previous governments. His is planning to write a book on his experiences.
In his departing speech as leader, Høybråten suggested that if children do not become familiar with the Christianity “that has formed our society, they will become culturally illiterate” and Norway “will be morally damaged.” He attacked “those who believe that knowledge of our cultural heritage is unnecessary and with every measure try to erase Christianity’s role in school and our society” as “ignorant of history,” and described a society that “does not know its own roots” as “like cut flowers.” He criticized the current government for “neutralizng schools and kindergartens.” In particular, he said that “KrF’s voice is needed” in debates about ultrasound and euthanasia, pointing to previous work on smoking law as an example of the party’s influence.
‘Sleepless nights’ ahead
Since being selected as the new leader some months ago, Hareide has tried to distance himself from his predecessor with a more inclusive leadership style, and more strategic communication. Hareide’s appointment was welcomed by former KrF leader and former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. Bondevik, who apparently hand-picked Hareide as environment minister in his second government, told Aftenposten that the new leader “has the best qualifications in order to succeed as party leader.” Nonetheless, the former prime minister warned that Hareide “has a very demanding task in front of him,” as he “takes over at a time when KrF are at a very low level compared to what we are used to.” Bondevik further praised Hareide for being “sensible” to “dampen down expectations of a fast improvement.”
Looking to the parliamentary electons in 2013 and the prospect of centre and right-wing parties forming government, Hareide would not be drawn on whether KrF would manage to cooperate with the far more conservative Progress Party. Many in KrF, including former leader Bondevik, are wary of cooperation with the Progress Party. Hareide said that discussions about future governments were far too early with the elections themselves so far away. He told NRK that the issue of potential cooperation with other parties in government would cause him “sleepless nights” as he wants to be in a “key position” in the centre of Norwegian politics in the event of different coalitions being considered.
In his speech to party members, Hareide said that he wanted a certain number of hours of voluntary work to be a contractual obligation for Norwegian workers, stating his desire to “challenge the state, all local authorities in the country and private companies to let their employees lend a hand with voluntary work.” He pointed to examples of such arrangements in the UK, where telecommunications firm BT have set targets for the total number of days of voluntary work their staff will undertake. “Voluntary organizations would get help, and employees would be motivated to see beyond their day job and to be part of something bigger”, he added on the benefits of the scheme.
‘Confessional clause’ removal begins
A large majority at the conference voted to end the so-called “confessional clause” that the party operates towards elected members, which means that they must be Christians in order to represent the party. The party must wait until another conference in two years time to remove the paragraph one and for all. The move is seen as key to renewing KrF’s fortunes.
In other decisions, the conference agreed policy to support a doubling of the so-called konstantstøtten, a form of cash benefit for those living at home with children under 3 years old, from NOK 3,303 per month (USD 630) to NOK 7,000 per month (USD 1,335) for one year-olds. KrF would also quadruple the single maternity payment available to mothers who have not been in work from NOK 35,000 (USD 6,675) to NOK 151,000 (nearly USD 29,000), in the hope of more mothers being able to afford being at home with their children. The party also passed policy on increasing paid parental leave to 68 weeks, which could be taken up to the child’s 10th birthday.
Hareide commented that KrF’s family policies might be seen as “costly from the finance department, but not in terms of the needs of society.” The leader announced that KrF would support policies meaning that children over one year would receive a kindergarten place within four months of an application, although no resolution was passed at the conference on this.