Labour’s partners now a liability

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Consumers finally seem to be revolting in Norway. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) released a new public opinion poll on Thursday that shows the opposition parties in Parliament now holding double the amount of voter support than that held by the Labour-led government parties. That should come as no surprise. The government parties, it seems, have badly underestimated Norwegians’ willingness to accept their latest barrage of anti-consumer measures, and other moves that have resulted in a loss of voter respect.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg remains popular, and his party logged the single largest gain in the recent polls. His unpopular coalition partners, however, are dragging him down and that may result in a change of government power next year. There are no signs Labour intends to dump either one of them, or its left-center coalition strategy, and Stoltenberg remains on the offensive like here at at recent party meeting. He and his Labour colleagues seem intent on their campaign slogan “Vi tar Norge videre” (We’ll take Norway farther.) PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

It was just last year that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) commanded huge respect and massive praise for his firm but folksy leadership, not least right after the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011. Stoltenberg enjoyed strong personal popularity and he still does: A new parallel NRK poll shows him running slightly ahead of Erna Solberg, the leader of the biggest opposition party at present, the Conservatives (Høyre). Many Norwegians seem to now prefer a change of government, to the non-socialist side, but 41.5 percent still want Stoltenberg to be their prime minister.

It’s also interesting to note that the Conservatives actually slipped in the recent poll, down a half-percentage point to 31.5 percent of the vote, while Stoltenberg’s Labour Party gained 1.3 points, to 29.1 percent, according to the statistics compiled by research firm Norstat for NRK.

But it’s Labour’s two small government partners, the Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) and the Socialist Left (SV), that are dragging Stoltenberg’s government coalition down. Both have fallen below the 4 percent-level needed to win representation in Parliament, with Sp commanding just 3.9 percent of the vote and SV even less at 3.3 percent.

That gives the current left-center government 36.3 percent of the vote, compared to the 49.3 percent now held by the Conservatives and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp), which claimed 17.8 percent in the new poll. If those two non-socialist parties get support from either the centrist Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) or the Liberal Party (Venstre), they’d have a solid majority as high as nearly 60 percent and double the seats in Parliament as Labour, Sp and SV.

Voters clearly don’t like either of Labour’s current partners, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone following a recent string of anti-consumer measures and other unpopular proposals forced through mostly by the Center Party. Just in the past few weeks, Center Party leaders have demanded a huge increase in import tariffs to protect their farming constituency, turned a deaf ear to what that will mean for consumers, and dismissed serious complaints from Norway’s foreign trading partners.

These two people, Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete (left) and deputy leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, have angered many Norwegian consumers and foreign trade partners, and ignited the opposition after they forced through more protectionist policies to appease farmers and, they claim, ensure food production in Norway. Their higher import tariffs and market controls would likely be reversed if the opposition parties win government power. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

On Thursday came news, also via NRK, that Norway’s virtual meat monopoly Nortura, which the Center Party so warmly supports, has managed to gain control over imports of meat from several African countries, to make sure it’s not sold at prices that would be much lower than the prices demanded by Norwegian meat producers. Nortura, which dominates the market through its Gilde brand for meat and Prior brand for poultry, called it a “win-win” situation that pays 90 percent of Norwegian prices for the African meat, adds it to the short supplies of Norwegian producers, keeps their prices high and improves selection for consumers. Nortura officials ignored the fact that their customers still lose, because of the artificially inflated prices for the meat, nor could they document that African farmers will actually receive the high prices Nortura allegedly is paying.

When Labour caved in to the unpopular demands of the small Center Party, and agreed against their own judgment to raise import tariffs to support farmers, some commentators claimed that alone lost them next year’s election. But it’s not only the controversial controls that the Center Party wants to keep on the food market in Norway that voters no longer seem willing to accept: The party also launched an effort to kill all wolves in Norway through an open hunt starting next fall, even as authorities suspended a current limited hunt after howls of protest. Another new survey in the Center Party-friendly newspaper Nationen shows that only 23 percent of Norway’s population supports an open wolf hunt. Fully 70 percent are opposed.

The bottom line: The Center Party is out of touch with the overwhelming majority of Norwegian voters, not even the farmers may be able to save them now, and party leaders can’t seem to understand how their authoritarian policies no longer have appeal in a modern, affluent and certainly more competitively minded Norway. Deputy leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, Norway’s current agriculture minister, admitted on Thursday that his party’s support was ” of course too low,” but claimed they were working on new initiatives they think will boost support before Election Day on September 9, 2013.

Labour’s looming liability
For Stoltenberg, his choice of government partners now appears to be severe political liability. He’s faced a string of other problems lately, from reaction over the poor emergency response to last year’s terrorist attacks to conflicts of interest among his own ministers, but the new poll still shows the biggest single increase in voter support among all seven parties not represented in Parliament.

Labour alone could thus have a chance of winning a serious bloc of voter support next fall, but by continuing to make compromises on major issues from EU membership to liberalized trade to a wolf hunt, to appease its unpopular coalition partners, it risks sending voters right into the waiting arms of the opposition parties led by the Conservatives and the Progress Party. Together, the Conservatives and the Progress Party may be able to form a government alone and then Solberg would likely become prime minister.

It’s debatable just how much real change a government shift next year will really mean for Norway. The social welfare state is firmly entrenched and supported by Norwegian voters, and ideological differences among the parties are relatively small. But voters likely would at least see more choice at the grocery store, and probably lower prices for meat and cheese.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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