NEWS ANALYSIS: State broadcaster NRK’s lively debate in Arendal Thursday night among the leaders of Norway’s major political parties confirmed that next year’s national election campaign is already underway. There were also clear signs of shifting political alliances that can make the campaign even livelier, and lead to a change in government.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been leading her conservative minority coalition with the Progress Party and the help of two support parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. New public opinion polls, however, signal some waning popularity among voters, while the Christian Democrats may shift sides and give their support to a left-center coalition that the Labour Party is very keen to form.
Solberg’s Conservative Party and her own personal popularity have risen, with state broadcaster NRK’s poll showing that 43.3 percent of Norwegian voters want to keep her as prime minister, compared to 39.7 percent who want Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre to take over her job. Solberg’s party, meanwhile, gained in both NRK’s and newspaper Aftenposten’s polls, to 24.2 percent and 24.7 percent respectively.
The polls also indicate, however, that the Liberals are falling dangerously close to the 4 percent level of voter support needed to maintain representation in Parliament. While newspaper’s Aftenposten’s most recent “party barometer” for August showed the Liberals with 4.7 percent of the vote, NRK’s showed them with just 3.3 percent, falling nearly a full point since June. If they don’t do better in next year’s election, Solberg’s government could lose majority support in Parliament.
Solberg’s most important ally, her coalition partner the Progress Party, has also tumbled in recent polls, to as low as 13.7 percent in Aftenposten’s. That compares to the 16.3 percent it won in the last election that propelled it into government for the first time ever.
The Christian Democrats aren’t doing much better but they have been more stable at around 5 percent of the vote. They’re not happy with the Progress Party, however, especially on immigration issues and aid for refugees. Christian Democrats’ leader Knut Arild Hareide drove some hard points at Thursday’s debate in Arendal, which climaxed the week of politicking in the southern coastal city called Arendalsuka, demanding that the government take in more quota refugees cleared through the UN and allocate much more foreign aid to help them where they are, in camps from the Middle East to Africa.
Solberg thus faces a challenge in settling the differences between Hareide and Progress Party leaders, to keep Hareide from moving over to a left-center coalition that would be led by Labour and Jonas Gahr Støre. Labour remains Norway’s largest party, with 34-36 percent of the vote depending on which poll you look at, and Støres personal popularity was higher than Solberg’s in Aftenposten’s poll.
See NRK’s party barometer here (external link to NRK, in Norwegian but scroll down to see the graphic).
Støre is keen on winning back government power and speculation is flying that he’s been wooing Hareide’s Christian Democrats over to the left-center side. Debate within Hareide’s party is flying over which side to choose, if any declaration is to be made at all. Government power has long been a goal for the Christian Democrats and they’ve compromised on issues before to be part of ruling coalitions, but they pointedly stayed out of Solberg’s coalition because they wouldn’t rule with the Progress Party. Instead they opted for the power they could command by entering into the support agreement.
Renewing old Labour-Center ties
Støre already seems allied with the Center Party, best known for its decentralization campaigns to win as much support and funding for Norway’s outlying areas along with subsidy and tariff protection to support high prices for farmers. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum was already vowing this week to reverse any municipal mergers forced upon local communities by the current conservative coalition. His sparse audience at an Arendalsuka event reflected his party’s lack of support among the vast majority of Norwegian voters, but it still has a knack for getting its way and was part of the last Labour-led left-center coalition that ruled Norway from 2005 to 2013.
Newspaper Dagsavisen noted earlier this week, meanwhile, that the Labour, Center and Christian Democrats leaders have all been invited to speak at a meeting of the Christian Democratic Forum in October. The forum would prefer to see a center-right government coalition made up of the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, but since the Progress Party’s strength prevents that, it might back a Labour-Center-Christian Democrats coaltion with occasional support from the small Socialist Left and Greens parties.
Some political analysts, including those from the Conservatives, claim Labour can’t hold government power without support from the still-blossoming Greens Party as well. Even though Labour and the Center Party try to project an environmentally friendly image, there will be problems reconciling Labour’s support for the oil industry and the Center Party’s support for agriculture, both of which generate carbon emissions. Labour is cooperating with the Greens in Oslo’s city government, though, so compromises may be made.
Vedum of the Center Party, meanwhile, seems as keen as Støre to team up again in government. He even rushed to Støre’s support last spring, when news broke that the Labour Party leader’s own affluent family had used both private health care, nursing homes and schools. “Desperate, lowly and distasteful” was how Vedum described the criticism reported in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) at the time of Støre’s family use of private options when his own party decries them. Trond Helleland, a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives, maintained that Støre had “one morale for himself and another morale for the rest of the population.” Støre himself claimed he’s never been opposed to allowing private health care providers or schools in Norway, and that option should be available. He merely opposes public financial support for private providers.
Others claimed that issue in particular was an example of Støre’s “foggy rhetoric” and failure to take clear positions on issues. He’s now determined to shed his image as a wishy-washy politician. He told Aftenposten this week that he and his party fellows have intentionally been following a long-term plan, taking time to meet voters and listen to them, and thereafter work out a new politial agenda. He admitted to being “less visible” and less firm on issues, while Labour crafts a new platform ahead of the next election in September 2017. “It’s a calculated risk,” he told Aftenposten, “but I’m certain that we have won more than we’ve lost.”
At Thursday night’s debate, and during much of the week in Arendal, he was on the offensive, accusing the government of failing to halt what he claims are rising economic differences among Norwegians. Some are earning too much, others too little, he thinks, and he blamed the government for widening pay gaps, even warning that they can lead to the polarization and social unrest now seen in both the US and UK.
Prime Minister Solberg quickly and firmly fended off Støre’s attack, claiming live on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Støre seemd to be preparing to campaign against the US’ Donald Trump or Margaret Thatcher-type politicians when he warned that the Conservatives adhere to that side of political parties. “You’ll be meeting me (in the upcoming election campaign), and I stand for completely different politics,” Solberg exclaimed, as the audience laughed and burst into applause.
When Støre also expressed concern over higher unemployment in Norway since oil prices fell, Solberg pounced again, not least since unemployment levels are now flattening out and most economists claim there is no “crisis” in Norway. She told DN that she thinks Labour and the rest of the left-center opposition had been expecting to be able to accuse the government of failing to reverse an economic downturn, when in fact the economy is now picking up. “It’s fine that Jonas Gahr Støre no longer believes there’s a crisis,” Solberg told DN. She indicated Støre is desperate to find things to criticize as the campaign heats up.
The debate Thursday was mostly over the use of taxes as an equalizing factor and how to handle migration and integration of newcomers. Several political commentators still contend there really are few differences between even the Conservatives and Labour on many issues, and that Norway’s social welfare state will hum along no matter which side holds government power. Both Solberg and Støre dislike such talk, and clearly will use the year ahead to try to define their differences and woo the smaller parties over to their sides.