Coalition strides into second year

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NEWS ANALYSIS: After a long, hot summer with interrupted holidays, Norway’s non-socialist government coalition ministers are striding into their second year in power and preparing their first state budget. A year after last fall’s election, leaders of all the country’s political parties were gathering in Arendal on Thursday to debate whether the government has delivered, while a new public opinion poll suggests it has indeed.

After a year in power, commentators agree that Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the once-shunned Progress Party has adapted well to her new role in the halls of power. PHOTO: Finansdepartementet

After a year in power, commentators agree that Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the once-ridiculed Progress Party has adapted well, perhaps the best of all the new ministers, to her new role in the halls of power. PHOTO: Finansdepartementet

There was a lot of public objection to the government’s clumsy approach to some attempted abortion reform last winter, and lots of harsh criticism over its refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama last spring, in an effort to avoid further offending China, but a new public opinion poll indicates Norwegian voters still support the conservative government formed last fall. The coalition partner that’s won the best reviews is the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp), with even some of its most ardent foes in the past conceding that it’s adapted well to its new government role.

The new poll conducted by research firm Norfakta shows that  Frp won the strongest nod in the August survey by research firm Norfakta, gaining 2.2 points to claim 15 percent of voter support. That’s close to the 16.3 percent that swept Frp into government power for the first time ever last year, and shows a rebound from a few months earlier this year when some polls showed Frp down at around 12-13 percent.

Party leader Siv Jensen, now Norway’s finance minister, is busy preparing the government’s first budget, to be presented to Parliament when it reconvenes in October. She’s under pressure to produce the tax relief promised voters during last year’s campaign and faces criticism for failing, along with government partner Høyre (the Conservatives), to eliminate Norway’s controversial tax on net worth (formueskatt, literally “fortune tax”), also as they’d promised. Jensen, however, is predictably proud of her party’s first year in government and claims she and Prime Minister Erna Solberg will deliver on their promises.

More to come
“We have said that our policies will yield relief from taxes and user fees, and we’ve offered more relief in our first year than any other government,” Jensen told newspaper Dagsavisen recently. “More will come!” While there’s been some indication of her party cautioning voters against expecting too much, Jensen stressed how the government eliminated inheritance taxes and reduced taxes on net worth and income.

She also noted that the Norwegian economy has still been doing well under the new government and claimed its ministers will continue to improve competitiveness for Norwegian business and improve infrastructure, with better roads and transportation systems a priority. Her party’s transport minister, Ketil Solvik-Olsen, is arguably one of the most popular government ministers, scoring five out of six points in a ranking by newspaper Dagbladet in June, and Frp’s justice minister, Anders Anundsen, has won high approval ratings as well.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, shown here while hosting a reception during Gay Pride celebrations in Oslo in June, has enjoyed personal popularity. Her bag reads "No one is like everyone else." PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, shown here while hosting a reception during Gay Pride celebrations in Oslo in June, has enjoyed personal popularity. Her bag reads “No one is like everyone else.” PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

The Conservatives, meanwhile, slipped in the latest public opinion poll, down 1.7 points to 24.6 percent of the vote, but Prime Minister Solberg has won high personal approval ratings. She has also claimed to be “super-satisfied” with her first year in office, and her government has managed to hold together its partnership of sorts with the smaller “support parties” Venstre (the Liberals) and KrF (the Christian Democrats). Each of them retained around 5 percent of the vote in the new poll, giving the coalition 49 percent of the vote compared to 45.6 percent for Labour (Arbeiderpartiet) and its two former government partners SV (the Socialist Left) and the Center Party.

Media commentators and some business leaders have continued to pound the government for such offenses as failing to deliver on all its tax promises, failing to halt rising food and drink prices and failing to reduce the number of toll roads in Norway. State broadcaster Magnus Takvam, however, noted on Thursday that the voters haven’t abandoned the government despite the media criticism and a new offensive launched by the Labour Party, now headed by popular and respected former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. The so-called “Støre effect” seems to be working, with Labour now holding 36 percent of the vote and retaining its role as Norway’s single largest party. Labour hasn’t, however, found enough partners in Parliament yet to pose a serious threat to the government.

They were all posed to fight it out Thursday night at the annual political gathering in Arendal, with the key issue dwelling on whether the government has delivered during its first year in office. Even some of the most critical media commentators, however, concede that Siv Jensen’s Progress Party has performed much better than expected and shown itself to be credible, capable and worthy of running the country. Newspaper Aftenposten’s Harald Stanghelle has called Jensen’s own performance “a triumph march,” while newspaper Dagbladet claimed she was “secure in her role as the guardian of the nation’s treasury, able to tackle both the opposition in Parliament and the business world.” The paper also gave her a score of five out of six in its mid-year report card.

‘Something has happened’
“Something has happened with our view of the Progress Party during its government period,” Stanghelle wrote, adding that the party Norwegians loved to hate has found its place in the halls of power while retaining its image as impatient and reform-minded.

“That’s why it’s been important for Siv Jensen’s crew to increase Norwegians’ tax-free quota, raise the speed limit to 110 kilometers per hour on some highways, be open to allowing poker play (for money), making boat engines cheaper, liberalizing snowmobile use, allowing Segway use, cutting taxes on cars for enthusiasts and thoroughly shaking up the unpopular parking branch,” he wrote. “It costs little but means so much.”

Now he and others are gearing up to monitor the government’s second year in power, when it won’t be as easy to blame the former left-center government coalition when problems arise. Jensen is due to present her first state budget in Parliament on October 8.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund