NEWS ANALYSIS: Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe has been stirring up controversy and quarrels in the government for the past few weeks, ever since Norway’s politicians began their delayed campaign for the upcoming municipal elections. Moe’s motives have come under question, as he seems to be taking his small Center Party away from left-center and towards the conservative (borgelig) side of Norwegian politics.
After two four-year terms of a left-center government coalition, of which the Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) has been a member, it’s not unlikely that voters will opt for a change in the next national elections in 2013. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Labour Party, which dominates the coalition, are riding a wave of popularity at present but it may not last another two years, and Stoltenberg himself may decide to move on if he’s offered some sort of international top post.
Meanwhile, Norwegian politics seems to be moving towards more of a two-bloc system like that in the UK and US. Recent public opinion polls show Labour leading, closely followed by the Conservative Party (Høyre). Each of them commands anywhere from the mid-20s to just over 30 percent of the vote.
Then there’s a big gap until the once-much-larger Progress Party (to the right of the Conservatives) shows up in the teens, most recently with around 16 percent of the vote.
And then all the other parties, some of which also were once much larger, share the crumbs, all of them with just single-digit support from voters. Among them are the two existing members of the left-center government coalition, with Sp in the center and the Socialist Left (SV) on the left, and the other small, mostly conservative-leaning parties like the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party (Venstre).
The Conservatives may wind up best-positioned to run the government from 2013, or lead a right-center coalition, and speculation is swirling that Moe is setting the stage to be part of it. His controversial solo statements that have so angered his left-leaning government colleagues in recent weeks – like opposing shutdown of fur farms, continuing to delay expensive carbon capture at Statoil’s Mongstad plant, promoting more oil exploration and extraction and offending the environmental movement – are music to the ears of the conservative wing of his own party.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives (Høyre) have been sounding more and more like Sp lately, championing the rights of townships to more self-regulation, for example, and often favouring business interests over those of environmentalists. A story in newspaper Aftenposten on the proliferation of illegal dumping sites in Norway, in another example, focused on the community of Øvre Eiker, where Member of Parliament Anders Werp of the Conservatives was mayor until 2009. Environmentalists have accused politicians in Øvre Eiker of failing to crack down on its illegal dumps, while Werp advocates more, not less, local responsibility for real estate and environmental issues.
So does Sp, and now the conservative brethren within the traditionally farmer-friendly party reportedly is pleased by his string of statements in recent weeks that especially riled SV. Newspaper Aftenposten noted last week that it’s sparking optimism among those who would like to see Sp return to a more center-right position, and possibly be part of a conservative government.
In the end, a party like Sp that can claim power only by tipping the balance likely will see which way the wind is blowing before taking a stance. It will do what’s best for itself and its constituents’ interests. And an ambitious young politician like Moe will position himself for whatever might help him become party leader and/or retain a ministerial post.
With only around 5 percent of the vote, sometimes even less, it often seems like the small parties like Sp enjoy a disproportionate amount of power when they can claim top ministerial posts. It may be that either the Conservatives or Labour will one day rule alone, without having to appease parties like Sp, Venstre or SV. More likely, future governments will be center-left or center-right, and Moe clearly wants to remain part of the action.
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