HERE’S WHAT’S UP FOR NEGOTIATION: The leaders of the four non-socialist Norwegian parties that collectively won last week’s parliamentary election were sitting down to demanding talks at a hotel in Oslo on Monday, to decide how they might govern the country. They need to agree on a common platform if they hope to form a coalition government, with the degrees of their lust for power deciding the outcome.
It’s all a matter of how much each party will be willing to compromise on the issues where they disagree. “We will be tough negotiators,” vowed Progress Party leader Siv Jensen on Election Night, “but we will be realistic.”
This first stage of talks is known as sonderinger in Norwegian – a preliminary round where they sound each other out on the issues. Real negotiations begin later, if they feel there’s grounds for them.
Both Jensen and at least two of her potential government partners from the dominant Conservative and small Liberal parties seem to have won room to maneuver during the negotiations from their party faithful. Their desire to win government power, for the first time in the case of the Progress Party, seems greater than their desire to hold so fast to their individual stands on issues that they won’t budge. Not so at the small Christian Democrats party, where many of its members who served in previous coalition governments have advised against ruling with the Progress Party because their differences are too great. It’s been widely speculated that the Christian Democrats may be the first to withdraw from the new government negotiations, but even they can find some common ground, so the outcome is wide open. All four leaders, with Prime Minister-elect Erna Solberg from the Conservatives steering the negotiations, claim they’re heading into the talks with open minds.
It’s expected that the most difficult issues will be tackled first when the four party leaders start talking at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Oslo’s Nydalen district on Monday afternoon. Here’s a rundown of the biggest differences among them that need to be resolved:
OIL DRILLING OFF LOFOTEN, VESTERÅLEN AND SENJA: This has repeatedly been mentioned, also by Solberg who’ll be leading the negotiations, as the toughest issue that clearly separates the Conservatives and the Progress Party from their two smaller potential partners. Both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats are strongly opposed to allowing oil drilling off some of Norway’s most scenic coastline and in the heart of its richest fishing grounds. Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande has said she won’t accept anything less than another postponement of any oil drilling. Even one of the Conservatives’ biggest financial supporters, businessman Jens Ulltveit Moe, has warned against Norway’s over-reliance on oil, and there are signs both of the bigger parties may give in to their smaller partners, not least since the prospect of oil drilling off Lofoten isn’t popular.
HIGHWAY FINANCING: All four parties have stressed a need for extensive road improvements in Norway and support new ways of financing and building them, to expedite their completion. The Progress Party, however, wants to drop reliance on tolls (bompenger) to help pay for new roads, while their potential partners have supported the concept of user fees. It will be difficult for the Progress Party to back down on this issue.
IMMIGRATION AND ASYLUM: Both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats have softer stands on these emotional issues, with the Progress Party calling for the toughest measures to stem immigration. Newspaper Aftenposten has reported that the Conservatives and the Progress Party may go along with offering amnesty to the roughly 400 children of asylum seekers who already are in Norway, in return for getting the two smaller parties to go along with tougher immigration polices. Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, said over the weekend that the fate of the children called asylbarn in Norway tops he party’s concerns. If they’re given amnesty, he may be willing to accept tough new immigration requirements.
USE OF OIL REVENUES: The Progress Party has argued for years in favour of investing more of Norway’s oil wealth in Norway, instead of stashing most of it in the so-called “Oil Fund” for future generations that’s invested in international stock markets and, most recently, some prestigious real estate abroad. Siv Jensen’s party wants to be able to use more of the oil money to finance more and better roads, schools, hospitals and, not least, nursing homes, while most others argue that could overheat the Norwegian economy. It’s highly unlikely the rule that limits expenditure of Norway’s oil revenues will be ignored, so this is one area where Jensen will probably need to compromise. The good news for her, though, is that the oil fund has grown so big that the actual amount of money that can be used gets bigger every year. The new government will still have lots more to spend, even when abiding by the rule.
PROTECTIONISM AND HIGH PRICES: Here’s where both the Conservatives and the Progress Party risk betraying their voters, if they cave in to the Christian Democrats’ demands that Norwegian farmers still need current levels of subsidies and protection from imports. The Progress Party and to a large degree the Conservatives and the Liberals want to ease Norway’s highly protectionist agricultural policies, with Progress wanting to reduce the farmers’ power over the state, gradually reduce subsidies, roll back tariffs that keep cheaper and often better imported food out of the Norwegian market and ease restrictions on agricultural property. The Christian Democrats want to retain the current system of negotiations between the farmers’ lobby and the state, increase support and subsidies to the farmers and retain the import tariffs.
FOREIGN AID: The Christian Democrats want to increase financial aid to poor countries, while the Progress Party wants to cut it. Discussion is also likely over how aid is distributed. This is an issue where the Progress Party seems to stand alone on its views, and given funding available, may need to compromise.
ALCOHOL POLITICS: This is another issue where the Progress Party and the Christian Democrats are as diametrically opposed as they are on asylum and immigration issues. The Christian Democrats claim they can’t accept any further liberalization of rules restricting access to alcohol (through serving times in bars and restaurants, opening hours at the state-controlled retailer Vinmonopolet and rules over when other stores are allowed to sell beer), nor will they lower taxes on beer, wine and liquor. The Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberals all favour expanded sales hours,while the Progress Party even wants to shut down Vinmonopolet.
All these issues need some immediate clarification before negotiations can proceed. There are other thorny issues as well, from an agreement on how parental leave should be divided between mothers and fathers when a child is born, whether begging should be prohibited in Norway (both the Conservatives and the Progress Party want a ban as soon as possible) and whether Norwegians should be able to try having children through egg and sperm donations. There also are differences on such issues as tax relief, whether the state should take over responsibility for elder care from local governments and how Norway’s bureaucracy can be trimmed.
Negotiations leader Solberg has claimed she’s optimistic that there’s enough willingness on the part of all four parties to form a coalition government that they’ll all be able to find common ground. Political commentators think it’s far more likely that the Christian Democrats will leave the table and take a place among the opposition parties in the Parliament, leaving the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberals to form a government together that would still have a majority in parliament. Talks must be wrapped up by October 14, when the current left-center government will present its last budget. A new group of government ministers is expected to be presented on the grounds of the Royal Palace following the first Council of State after that, on Friday October 18.