NEWS ANALYSIS: As Norway’s parliamentary election campaign clicks into high gear, much of the local media attention has been on how the parties stand in the polls and how they might cooperate to form a government. That’s overshadowed many of the actual issues at stake, so it’s time, perhaps, to offer a rundown of how a new non-socialist government would differ from the current left-center coalition.
Many questions remain, not least because the four non-socialist parties have refused to campaign on a common platform. No one can say what kind of government they may form if they jointly win, as expected, a majority of seats in Parliament. Instead of taking firm stands or revealing how they may cooperate, they’ve been keen to campaign separately and stress the differences among themselves, even though it’s unlikely any single party will win enough votes to rule alone.
Norway’s two biggest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, appear most likely to lead any coalition. Siv Jensen, leader of the country’s third-largest and most conservative Progress Party, made an interesting and provocative comment earlier this week when she claimed it was difficult to see major political differences between the two arch-rivals. She accused Conservatives leader Erna Solberg of “living in a social democratic bubble” and running a campaign that tried to further similarities among the parties instead of differences.
“The whole point of changing a government must be to change politics,” said Jensen, repeating much of the same at Monday night’s debate and stressing the need for voters to vote for the party that best reflects their own politics. Jensen’s comments can hardly grease the skids for a much-vaunted cooperation between her party and Solberg’s.
Voters are left with only a general idea of how things might work if either the left or the right emerges victorious. Here are some of the main issues in the country that’s already widely dubbed to be the best place on the planet to live:
Jensen claims that without her party in a non-socialist government, there won’t be any real change in Norway’s notoriously high prices for food, drink and most other household items. The Progress Party wants to seriously cut subsidies to farmers, reduce Norway’s protectionist tariffs that keep out imports, and cut taxes on alcohol and other consumer goods. The Conservatives go along with some of that but Solberg has cautioned that any major cuts would come as too great a “shock” to producers.
In the current left-center government, Labour went along with the Center Party’s demands for more protectionism and more support for farmers, which led to the controversial new tariffs on imported cheese and meat and sent prices up again at the grocery store. A non-socialist government is expected to reverse them.
Oil revenue use
Jensen has long campaigned for more use of Norway’s oil revenues, instead of stashing the vast majority of them away in a fund for future generations. Solberg also wants to spend more, but not as much as Jensen, and the Conservatives and the two other non-socialist parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, want to abide by the rule limiting spending to 4 percent of the size of the fund.
The Labour-led coalition won’t spend any more than the 4 percent limit, and has spent less.
This turned into a bigger campaign issue than expected as the parties argued over how families should be able to use the 59 weeks of fully paid parental leave they get upon the birth of a child.
On this issue, the non-socialists are arguing among themselves, with the Conservatives and Progress Party keen to remove a requirement that at least 14 weeks must be used by fathers. Their potential partners, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, want to keep the “pappa quota,” as do all three left-center parties: Labour, the Center Party and the Socialist Left.
Here the non-socialists want more flexibility over how working time should be determined, and they want to ease other restrictions on employers as well. The incumbent government parties want to maintain all current restrictions and actively fight against social dumping and exploitation of foreign labour.
Hospitals and health care
The Labour-led parties want to maintain a strong public health care system and full state control over hospitals. They don’t want to turn hospital care over to the private sector.
The non-socialist parties want to allow more private players into the health care system and they want the state to send more patients stuck on waiting lists over to private clinics. The Conservatives recently raised eyebrows by revealing that they may increase the relatively small portion of health care costs that are paid by patients (called egenandel), with Labour officials claiming that’s not much different than a tax increase. The Conservatives also have been accused of not clarifying how they would pay for health care improvements, since they also favour tax cuts.
Not a big issue in the current campaign, with the pullout from Afghanistan underway and Norwegian defense policy so closely connected to NATO’s. The military also has been undergoing major reorganization and modernization moves, and women can now be called in for service, so many issues that were hotter a few years ago have been resolved. Debate continues over the huge expense tied to orders for new fighter jets from the US.
The Labour-led government wants to maintain current levels of financial support for various media outlets, claiming it ensures a diversified, nationwide media. Without the financial support, several newspapers face closure.
The Conservatives want to cut media subsidies by NOK 100 million, the Progress Party wants to cut it by NOK 180 million and their partners want to either limit or continue it. A Conservative-led government would most likely cut media subsidies by some negotiated degree.
The current left-center government wants to maintain current tax levels. The Conservatives want tax cuts of around NOK 25 billion, the Progress Party advocates cuts of NOK 100 billion and their partners much less or none at all. A non-socialist government would probably reduce overall tax levels, not least on the controversial fortune tax on individual net worth.
Oil drilling off Lofoten
Two of the three government parties formally oppose it, even though Oil Minister Ola Borten Moe from the small Center Party supports it. Labour wants to move forward with a feasibility study of it, because of the jobs it would create.
Both the Conservatives and the Progress Party also want to move forward with oil drilling off Lofoten, while their two partners are firmly opposed. On this issue, the dynamics in both blocs are largely the same, but the small parties may prevail.
The Socialist Left wants to further increase Norway’s already substantial levels of foreign aid, while the two other socialist parties want to maintain current levels. The non-socialists want to either reduce foreign aid or redefine how it’s extended. Reductions would be likely if they win government power.
Immigration and asylum
The current government wants to continue existing policies. This issue is particularly divisive on the non-socialist side, with the Progress Party demanding restrictions and the two smaller parties wanting more liberal immigration and asylum laws. The Conservatives are caught in the middle and would likely force through a compromise.
Norway’s political parties generally come together on foreign policy issues and most foreign policy is likely to continue regardless of a change in government. There is potential for some change, though:
The Conservatives have always been in favour of joining the European Union (EU) and now may wind up with a majority of like-minded colleagues in parliament. The Progress Party has kept mum on the EU issue while Labour also is believed to support EU membership, but has been held back for the sake of government unity, since its two left-center partners firmly oppose joining the EU.
Changes may thus come on the EU issue, as well as in the areas of foreign aid (see above) and on human rights issues. It was a Conservative politician (Jan Tore Sanner) who nominated Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize, which plunged Norway into diplomatic crisis with China. Now Conservative politicians also advocate a tougher stance against Russia on human rights issues.
The Conservatives also are likely to move away from Labour’s eagerness to engage in peace talks around the world. Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, a candidate to be foreign minister for the Conservatives, told newspaper Dagsavisen this summer that she wants to dampen Norway’s image as a “peace nation” so as not to spread Norway’s resources too thinly. She also wants to restrict peace brokering to areas that would clearly serve Norway’s interests.
The current left-center government claims to put a priority on a strong public school system. They are traditionally skeptical towards private schools, and want to maintain a system where elementary school students don’t receive grades on the work they do.
The non-socialist parties want to allow more private schools and start grading students from the 5th grade. The Liberals and Christian Democrats side with the socialists on these issues.
The socialist parties want to maintain Norway’s current combination of road tolls and state funding. The Progress Party is the only party that wants to do away with tolls. The Conservatives and Liberals want more cooperation between the public and private sectors on road financing.