NEWS ANALYSIS: The politicians running Oslo are taking a sharp, admittedly “radical,” turn to the left. Five weeks after last month’s municipal elections, negotiations among three of the Norwegian capital’s left-wing parties have resulted in formation of a new city government that’s set to impose property tax, introduce strict environmental measures and be fronted by a new mayor from the Socialist Left party (SV), all with support from the anti-capitalist Reds party.
Even though the Labour Party only barely edged out the Conservatives as Oslo’s largest party, winning 32 percent of the vote compared to the Conservatives’ 31.8 percent, Labour has managed to form a new coalition city government with both SV and the Greens (Miljøpartiet de Grønne, MDG).
And even though SV logged arguably its worst election results in Oslo ever, winning only 5.4 percent of the vote, one of its veteran city politicians, 64-year-old Marianne Borgen will now become Oslo’s new mayor. Another SV politician will lead the equivalent of the government’s ministry for health and social welfare. It’s all a result of high-powered political bargaining that in the end, doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of the voters.
As a commentator for newspaper Dagsavisen wrote, though, SV played its cards well in the last five weeks of political drama that went on behind closed doors at, paradoxically enough, a posh timber lodge known as Østmarkseteren in Oslo’s eastern forest. It’s an elegant hideaway that’s been the site of many exclusive and expensive private gatherings over the years, yet it was the setting that produced one of the most radical governments Oslo has seen in nearly two decades. Borgen’s emergence as mayor, succeeding the Conservatives’ highly popular mayor Fabian Stang, was the biggest surprise as results of the political bargaining became known during the weekend.
Greens win environmental power
Dagsavisen reported, for example, that Borgen only won the mayor’s post after SV gave up its demands for even tougher property tax than that about to be imposed on Oslo residents by Labour. SV also was able to force through its clearest ultimatum: free after-school activities for thousands of Oslo school children who need supervision while their parents are still at work. Now Oslo taxpayers will provide it.
The Greens, meanwhile, reportedly will take over two city government posts, one of which reportedly will be in charge of environmental issues. That means the introduction of tough new environmental and climate measures like a ban on private cars in Oslo’s downtown area, major expansion of bicycle lanes and demands for a dramatic downscaling of plans to expand the busy E18 highway west of Oslo. The Greens were dubbed the biggest winner in the recent elections, grabbing 8.1 percent of the vote in a surge of popularity, so it was expected that the party would be able to force through quite a lot of its political platform in the negotiations to form a city government.
It’s less easy to understand how a party with only 5.4 percent of the vote can win the mayor’s seat, even though some political commentators were suggesting that Borgen will have more of a ceremonial role than Stang held. The most powerful politician in Oslo’s new city government will undoubtedly be Raymond Johansen, a former SV politician himself who switched over to the Labour Party and rose rapidly through the ranks on a national basis. Johansen was a state secretary in the foreign ministry when current Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre was foreign minister under Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. He even won some international fame when he became one of the first western politicians, much to the objections of US President George Bush’s administration, to meet with leaders of Hamas after the Palestinian party won Gaza. Johansen later became secretary of the Labour Party, its most powerful position second only to whoever is Labour leader.
Last year Johansen, from Oslo’s working class district of Groruddalen, shifted from national to local politics and ran as Labour’s candidate to head city government in Oslo’s local election. His running mate of sorts was another Labour politician and Labour’s candidate for mayor, the little-known Tone Tellevik Dahl, and when Labour barely edged out the Conservatives, Johansen claimed that as the city’s largest party, it should also hold the mayor’s seat. The Greens, however, made it clear right after its own triumph in the elections that it wanted the mayor’s post to go to its candidate, Shoaib Sultan. That seemed a more likely concession for Johansen to make, adding to the surprise when SV’s Borgen grabbed the symbolic spot from both Labour’s Dahl and the Greens’ Sultan.
Marxists also involved
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that in the end, Labour will get five posts in the new city government (known as Oslo byråd), while the Greens will get two and SV only one, plus the mayor’s post. It was confirmed during the weekend that SV’s post will be the one in charge of health and social welfare issues.
More details of the new Oslo city government’s makeup and program were expected on Monday, but one thing is clear: Politics will shift very much to the left after 18 years of Conservative rule. In addition to Labour, SV and the Greens forming a government, it will be a minority coalition and they must rely on support from the Reds, which is unabashedly anti-capitalist and akin to Norway’s communist party. The Reds also won around 5 percent of the vote in the last election but didn’t want to take part in the government coalition itself, apparently believing they would have more power as a swing vote on the Oslo City Council (called Oslo bystyret).
Some wealthy Oslo residents were already only half-joking over the weekend that they’re considering moving across the city border to Bærum, if only to avoid higher taxes, not least on their homes, and more regulation. Critics will also be keeping an eye on Johansen as Oslo heads into what may be a long, cold winter: When he was a city government politician in the early 1990s, he gambled that Oslo wouldn’t get much snow and didn’t provide an adequate budget for snow removal. Instead the city was hit by blizzards and left with unplowed streets and sidewalks, and the Conservatives won elections for the next 18 years. He’s unlikely to repeat that mistake.