Politicians gather in rites of spring

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The spring season of political party gatherings continues this weekend as Labour delegates meet in Oslo, following similar meetings of smaller parties like the Liberals last weekend. They’re all gearing up for the campaign before national elections on September 9, but only the Liberals have so far resorted to proposing a liberalization of wine and beer sales.

Members of the Liberal Party (Venstre) voting at their national party congress last weekend. PHOTO: Venstre

Members of the Liberal Party (Venstre) voting at their national party congress last weekend. PHOTO: Venstre

The past few weekends have featured a parade of national party meetings, with the Socialist Left (SV), the Center Party and, most recently, the Liberal Party (Venstre, which means “left” but is actually on the conservative side of Norwegian politics, despite its name) all trying to drum up enthusiasm and unity among their members. That’s often a tough job in itself, as they seek consensus on a long list of issues before they can present a platform to voters and then fight for their support.

For the small parties like these three, they’re also fighting simply for representation in Parliament and, ultimately, to rebuild Norway’s political center. The Liberals slipped below the crucial mark needed for seats in Parliament (4 percent of voter support) in the latest public opinion polls for April, to 3.7 percent, while both SV and the Center Party (both members of the left-center government coalition) currently have only around 4.9 percent of the vote each. The Christian Democrats have around 5 percent. Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberal Party, was candid about her top priority: “Our main goal regarding the election is to get a bigger group in the Parliament.” She wants to be part of a non-socialist coalition government, should the much bigger Conservatives and Progress Party  on Norway’s far right need some extra support, and even launched her candidacy for the post of education minister.

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre), taking a thoughtful moment during her party's national meeting last weekend. Unlike several other party leaders, Grande appears to have strong support from within her party, with no visible power struggles challenging her authority. She also gets along well with other party leaders. PHOTO: Venstre

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre), taking a thoughtful moment during her party’s national meeting last weekend. Unlike several other party leaders, Grande appears to have strong support from within her party, with no visible power struggles challenging her authority. She also gets along well with other party leaders. PHOTO: Venstre

As they jostle for position, the parties are also trying to woo voters with measures they think might attract support. That’s what may have fueled the proposal from the Liberals’ youth group that caught media attention this week: Allowing sales of wine and beer with high alcohol content in retail stores outside the state liquor monopoly Vinmonopolet. Grocery stores can now only sell beer with maximum 4.7 percent alcohol, and not in the evenings or on Sundays. All wine and liquor sales are controlled through Vinmonopolet, part of Norway’s long-standing policies (like the punitive taxes and resulting high prices) aimed at discouraging consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The Progress Party, which won’t meet until the end of May, supports such free market thinking but the thought that adult Norwegians should be able to buy wine and strong beer in grocery stores seems a bit much for several other parties. The Christian Democrats, for example, were quick to object to any measure that would undermine Vinmonopolet’s role of controlling alcohol sales. The Conservative Party, favoured to lead a non-socialist coalition after the election, seems only interested in allowing wine sales in grocery stores where there was no nearby Vinmonopolet.

“It’s been a long time since we supported phasing out the Vinmonopolet system,” Bent Høie, who heads the Conservatives’ program committee. told newspaper Aftenposten. “It has widespread public support and means a lot regarding alcohol policies.  It also secures good quality.” Høie said the Conservatives would be willing, though, to discuss setting up small Vinmonopolet outlets within some grocery stores.

The head of Vinmonopolet, Kai Henriksen, noted that wine sales account for 85 percent of Vinmonopolet’s revenues, and allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores would severely cut into its business. He thinks it also would ultimately destroy the monopoly system.

Hopeful members of the Liberal Party dressed up and applauded their platform at the traditional banquet during their party meeting. PHOTO: Venstre

Hopeful members of the Liberal Party dressed up and applauded their platform at the traditional banquet during their party meeting. The sign next to their party’s “V” logo literally translates to “folks first.” PHOTO: Venstre

So the Liberals don’t seem too likely to get very far with their wine sale liberalization effort. They remain firmly planted at the center of Norwegian politics, though, and hope for more support for their other stands on issues, like mandatory military draft for women as well as men, allowing egg donations by women but continuing to ban surrogacy, demanding fluency in Norwegian before immigrants are granted citizenship and eliminating inheritance tax. The party gets no support from Norway’s biggest labour federation, LO, but is in line on some issues with parties on the left side of politics.

Perhaps most importantly, for example, the Liberals remain firmly opposed to oil exploration and drilling off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja in northern Norway, and want a permanent ban on such petroleum activity to preserve the scenic area and its rich fishing grounds for eternity. Right now SV is the only other party to share the Liberals’ position on the oil drilling issue, which looms as probably the most divisive within both the current coalition government and the Labour Party itself when Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gathers his troops starting on Thursday.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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