NEWS ANALYSIS: The ink had barely dried on the political agreement signed by Norway’s non-socialist party leaders Monday night before tongues started wagging that Norway’s new Conservatives-led government may not last very long. Prime Minister-elect Erna Solberg can only hope to prove the skeptics wrong.
Tuesday’s Norwegian newspapers were full of dire warnings that Norway’s first-ever staunchly conservative government (by Norwegian standards) will probably fall before the new four-year parliamentary period runs out. Some of the more left-leaning media outlets were claiming that Solberg’s dream of leading a coalition that included all the four non-socialist parties had shattered, replaced by the “nightmare” of leading a government with just the Progress Party that lacks a firm majority and must rely on cooperation from the two much smaller non-socialist parties (the Liberals and the Christian Democrats), which ultimately decided against joining the coalition.
Trying to get the Progress Party and the Christian Democrats to agree on such issues as taxes (Progress wants to cut them, the Christian Democrats wants to raise them) or alcohol policies (Progress wants to ease them, the Christian Democrats wants to keep them strict) was “like trying to unite political fire and water,” veteran commentator Arne Strand intoned in newspaper Dagsavisen. He added that the need to now rely on the goodwill and cooperation of the small parties in the Parliament, which can tip the balance when voting on issues and will be constantly courted by the opposition parties, is “a considerably risky sport.” Solberg and her fellow government leader Siv Jensen of the Progress Party may wind up injured.
The four non-socialist party leaders did, however, sign an agreement that leaves all of them vulnerable to accusations of breaking promises if they don’t honor it. And it covers quite a few thorny issues that the last two weeks of negotiations among them have apparently settled, including the following:
** There won’t be any oil drilling allowed around the sensitive Arctic area of Jan Mayen, nor will the new government move forward with oil and gas exploration off Lofoten and Vesterålen. Those were environmental promises extracted by the Christian Democrats and Venstre.
** Even though the Progress Party has long wanted to spend more of Norway’s oil revenues to improve infrastructure in Norway, it went along with securing the so-called handlingsregel, the rule that limits spending to 4 percent of the size of the oil fund.
** Norwegian schools will get a significant boost, and curriculum will include a course in Christianity, other religions, lifestyles and ethics.
** Alcohol policies will be retained (another compromise by the Progress Party, extracted by the Christian Democrats).
** More health care guarantees and treatment options will be offered.
** A one-time measure was approved that will provide amnesty to children of asylum seekers currently in Norway, who were born in Norway or have spent most of their lives in Norway.
** There will be some tax relief in the form of higher personal deductions and reductions in both inheritance tax and Norway’s tax on net worth.
Solberg and Jensen also committed themselves to approaching their counterparts in the Christian Democrats (Knut Arild Hareide) and the Liberals (Trine Skei Grande) first, before floating new legislation in parliament. The idea is for them to get a chance to help shape it, and secure their support.
Some call the samarbeidsavtale (literally, “cooperation agreement”) between Solberg and Jensen’s parties on the one side and Hareide’s and Grande’s on the other a “successful defeat” for Solberg, or the “next best thing” she could get when it became clear there’d be no four-party coalition. The two small parties apparently feared they’d be smothered and risk the same fate that the Socialist Left party (SV) seems to have suffered under the outgoing left-center coalition, where the much bigger Labour Party was dominant.
Commentator Strand mentioned that a right-center coalition government made up of the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats would have had a much better chance of surviving for the next four years. Voters didn’t seem to want that, though, collectively giving them only 38 percent of the vote. Instead, Norwegian voters gave Solberg’s party 28 percent of the vote and Jensen’s 16.3 percent, for combined bloc of more than 44 percent. They have the right, therefore, to form a government and try to survive the next four years. They will still only need one of the two smaller parties to go along on various issues to win a majority in parliament, and may even gain support on some issues from opposition parties. That’s because the Conservatives and arch-rival Labour actually agree on many issues, although they don’t always like to admit it.
Now comes two more weeks of hard work for Solberg and Jensen, who have several differences of their own to iron out and still must hammer out a government platform and form a cabinet of ministers. The tone between them seems good, though, and Solberg won high public praise and gratitude from all three of the other party leaders, who claim she’ll be a good prime minister. She needs to remember, too, that voters have given the Progress Party a chance to govern, after 40 years in opposition, so it’s won the right to demand some respect. Jensen’s main job is to prove they’re worthy of it.