Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the survival of her government are now being put to the test, as state budget negotiations finally got underway on Tuesday. After another dive in public opinion polls, some commentators have claimed she and her minority cabinet may have to offer to resign if the negotiations don’t succeed.
Solberg’s currently ruling Conservative Party and her government coalition partner, the Progress Party, sat down Tuesday with representatives of their two small so-called support parties in Parliament: The Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Their support for a state budget is needed if the government is to get its budget through Parliament, but both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals are making demands unlikely to be met.
The Liberals’ alternative budget re-juggles priorities to the tune of NOK 28 billion (USD 4.2 billion), reported newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. The Liberals want far more money spent on more environmental and social issues. Hardest to swallow for the Progress Party are the Liberal Party’s demands to raise fuel taxes by a full krone per liter (about 60 cents per gallon), for example, to encourage more people to drive less. The Progress Party prides itself on cutting taxes and user fees instead.
“I have said this many times: This is going to be tough,” the Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande told Dagsavisen.
Grande’s party’s proposals aren’t popular, though, in rural districts, where people are far more reliant on their cars because of a lack of public transportation. And several experts said on the nightly nationwide newscast Dagsrevyen that Norway can’t meet demand for the new biofuels that Grande is pushing for, so that initiative may be unrealistic. Progress Party faithful accuse the Liberals of political posturing.
Finance Minister Siv Jensen from the Progress Party has said she can understand that the small support parties want to put their mark on the budget. The Christian Democrats, for example, want more money earmarked for foreign aid and both want to reverse any reduction in tax on net worth (formueskatt). Jensen remained predictably confident they’ll see some of their demands met and will come to agreement, arguing that her first state budget is far more “social and environmentally oriented” than people are giving her credit for.
Jensen also told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that there’s no panic in the government over falling oil prices and she thinks Norway’s long-strong economy will continue to simmer its way into next year. “The situation is still very good,” Jensen said. “We expect more economic growth next year, low unemployment and have good reason to believe employment will rise.”
The government and its support parties have in theory one week to agree on a new state budget that all four parties can vote into place. It may take more time, but the parliament’s finance committee is supposed to take a position on the budget by November 20.
Meanwhile, all the recent noise over the budget clearly has taken its toll on the government parties. The Progress Party has logged some of its poorest public opinion poll showings in 20 years, down to claiming just 9.5 percent of the vote in a poll for TV2 and just over 12 percent in a new poll for NRK. The Conservatives have fallen to claim only around 23 percent of the vote, while all the gains are going not to the small centrist parties in Parliament but to Labour, the main opposition party that’s waiting in the wings and eager to regain government power at any opportunity. It could boast just over 40 percent of the vote in NRK’s latest poll presented Tuesday evening.