As prime minister hopeful Erna Solberg gathered her Conservative Party (Høyre) for its national meeting at Gardermoen this weekend, the party seemed to be gaining new support from an unlikely source. Even though Høyre advocates free market, anti-protectionist principles and wants to restructure agricultural monopolies, it’s been attracting surprising numbers of voters from farmers who’ve relied on protectionism for years.
Nearly 60 percent of Norway’s farmers still vote for the small Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp), which promotes policies that protect Norwegian farmers from foreign competition and keep food prices high. New voter analyses show that the Center Party, however, is losing voters to Høyre. While the Center Party has dropped from 60 to 57 percent of the farmers’ vote during the past few years, Høyre has increased its share of the farmers’ vote to 13 percent, up from just 5 percent in 2006, according to a new survey by the rural research organization Norsk senter for bygdeforskning.
That makes Høyre the next-largest “farmers’ party” after the Center Party, reported newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week. Labour had 11 percent of the farmers’ vote last year, the Christian Democrats 6 percent, the Liberals and Progress Party 4 percent each and the Socialist Left party (SV) just 3 percent.
“Høyre is the new farmers’ party.” Professor Reidar Almås, who worked on the study of farmers’ voting patterns, told Dagsavisen. Bent Høie, deputy leader of Høyre, hopes he’s right, stressing that he thinks his party has better policies for agriculture than the Center Party and the left-center government coalition of which it’s a member. Høie and his Høyre colleagues also think the agricultural needs to rethink its strategies and adapt to more modern, global markets.
Another new study released this week seems to confirm Høie’s contention. Norway’s institute for research into agricultural economics, NILF, examined the effects of Høyre’s market policies for agriculture, which propose among other things major restructuring the country’s dairy and meat and poultry monopolies (Tine and Nortura). NILF concluded that food production would increase slightly, that the geographic spread of agriculture would be maintained and that farmers’ income would rise under Høyre.
“Now we can dismiss the doomsday rhetoric from Norges Bondelag (the farmers’ major lobbying organization) that we’ll ruin Norwegian agriculture,” Svein Flåtten, Høyre’s spokesman on agricultural issues, told newspaper Aftenposten. Flåtten was a major critic of the Tine dairy monopoly during last year’s butter shortage and clearly felt vindicated by NILF’s report, which offers an entirely different picture of prospects for farmers than the farmers’ own organization does.
The farmers’ group was disappointed by NILF’s conclusions and continues to claim that Norway needs high import tariffs and high subsidies for farmers if it’s to maintain self-sufficiency in food production.
Other issues on the agenda
Farming policies were by no means the only items on Høyre’s agenda as delegates gathered to debate issues. Høyre has also introduced its own plan for financing highway and public transport improvements that it claims will accomplish them much faster than the Labour-led coalition’s plan. Høyre also will be debating reproductive technology issues regarding abortion and surrogacy, whether Norwegian police should be armed at all times and whether women should be eligible for a military draft.
Despite some internal differences, Høyre’s delegates were expected to be in a good mood and on the offensive heading into the fall election campaign. Recent polls continue to indicate that Høyre is now Norway’s largest party and likely to take over government power in cooperation with other non-socialist parties after the September 9 election.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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