NEWS ANALYSIS: More than 90 percent of Norwegian voters don’t support Liv Signe Navarsete’s small, rural-oriented Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp), yet its top politicians and their upcoming annual meeting this weekend have been grabbing headlines and topping newscasts. Outsiders can only marvel over how and why the party can command so much attention and power given its actual standing within the population.
The same might be said for the now-small Socialist Left party (SV), since both it and the Center Party now hold only between 4 and 5 percent of the vote. But it’s the Center Party that often seems most out of step with popular opinion, from its eagerness to kill more of Norway’s wolves to its efforts to keep food prices high to benefit farmers. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Friday morning that Center Party leader Navarsete herself is in danger of losing her seat in parliament (Stortinget), which represents her mountainous home county of Sogn og Fjordane. The party hasn’t had such a poor showing as it heads into a national election campaign for the past 24 years, reports newspaper Dagsavisen.
Instead of being ignored because of its lack of support, however, the party continues to receive widespread media coverage, since, like SV, it’s one of the three parties forming Norway’s Labour-led left-center government coalition that’s up for re-election. The Center Party’s rural roots and the national romanticism often attached to its support among farmers likely also play a role, for which the vast majority of Norwegians pay dearly in the form of protectionist policies and agricultural subsidies that the party helps secure.
The vast amount of media attention lately has also been unwanted since it’s included so many stories about the party’s internal conflicts, an alleged power struggle going on between Navarsete and one of her two deputy leaders, Ola Borten Moe, and, not least, Moe’s own exploits. As Norway’s oil and energy minister, Moe has grabbed the spotlight himself for his bullish promotion of more oil exploration and production. An unauthorized biography of Moe released this week also paints a portrait that reveals a partying playboy behind his otherwise stoic exterior – along with an ambitious young mam who lusts for more power.
The pressure is thus on Navarsete, who’s suffered some scandals of her own, to assert whatever authority she has left this weekend. She desperately needs to gather and unite her troops, and mobilize them to boost the party’s voter support.
“It’s too low,” Navarsete admitted to Dagsavisen on Friday, “but we have a tradition for mobilizing before elections and mobilization will begin at the meeting.” She insists the anti-EU Center Party, which actually fights for de-centralizatin, “is important in Norwegian politics, as a party that dares to take up the fight both against Brussels and centralization forces in its own country. I will hammer into our folks that there’s a lot at stake and that we’re important.”
The Center Party has never enjoyed mass support, even though Ola Borten Moe’s grandfather Per Borten managed to be Norway’s prime minister for six years, from 1965 to 1971. Moe reportedly aspires to follow in his footsteps, using his grandfather’s name in a move that reinforces the association. While former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was generally referred to on second reference merely as “Brundtland,” and Health Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is “Støre,” Moe has succeeded in being referred to mostly as “Borten Moe,” allowing him to constantly remind Norwegians of his family heritage.
The media had mostly refrained from writing about his late-night party exploits or those of his former aid, until Elisabeth Skarsbø Moen’s book came out this week and suddenly the entire nation got a mental glimple of Moe cavorting naked before an improvised sauna in his aid’s apartment. Navarsete was blasting the book on Friday, questioning its sources and saying she thinks they should apologize for suggesting she and Moe all but hate each other.
Navarsete wants politics, not personalities, to dominate debate again. In addition to flagging the old issues like more support for rural areas and more local autonomy, Navarsete is pushing for more help for the sick and elderly, by offering to pay family members to provide more care at home. She’s disagreed with some party members’ complaints that the Center Party has moved too far away from the center of Norwegian politics, through its government alliance with Labour and the Socialist Left, but was hinting this week that she may go along with tighter bonds to other centrist parties like the Christian Democrats.
Possible end of an era
Navarsete made a significant concession to one of her Socialist Left government colleagues, Bård Vegar Solhjell, who said earlier this week that Center Party members should stop their complaining and be more satisfied with what they’ve achieved by being part of the government, given the funds now earmarked for better highways, more funding for local governments (kommuner) and other rural-friendly programs. “We have achieved an enormous amount though our (government) cooperation,” Navarsete told Dagsavisen. “We must be clear about that, and proud of it.”
The last several months of public opinion polls continue to suggest, however, that the Labour-led coalition won’t survive the September 9 election, and will be replaced by a new government led by the Conservatives. According to an analysis of polls conducted for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week, the Conservatives now hold 32.4 percent of the vote followed by Labour with 27.9 percent and the Progress Party with 17 percent. The centrist parties were left with just around 4-5 percent each, with the Center Party at 4.8 percent.
That may spell the end of the Center Party’s last eight years as a “red-green” party, not least since its government partner SV is also said to be in crisis with less than 5 percent of the vote. Both may be forced to seek new alliances. It may also spell the end for Navarsete’s party leadership. Right now, though, Navarsete and her colleagues face having to mobilize their rural constituency just to allow them to hang on to some seats, including her own.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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