Prime Minister Erna Solberg gathered her party faithful on Thursday for the Conservatives’ last annual national meeting before the next national election in September. Solberg has already been cast as the Conservatives’ voter magnet in this year’s re-election campaign, as leader of what the party itself is calling “Team Erna.”
“The party is banking on a popular prime minister to attract voters to the Conservatives (Høyre),” wrote political commentator Arne Strand in newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. The Conservatives’ slogan remains muligheter for alle (opportunities for everyone), augmented this election year by “VI TROR PÅ NORGE” (We believe in Norway).
Solberg was set to kick off the Conservatives’ national meeting, which runs through Sunday at Thon Congress Gardermoen, with her opening address Thursday afternoon. She was also expected to receive greetings and kudos from the leaders of her government coalition partner, the Progress Party, plus the leaders of the conservative coalition’s two support parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Solberg has won praise for managing to hold her minority coalition together for the past four years and, not least, for managing to steer Norway through one of its biggest economic challenges ever when oil prices collapsed during her first year in office in 2014. That could have plunged Norway into recession or worse, but her government’s expansive budgets aimed at creating new jobs and making Norway less reliant on its oil helped the country weather the storm.
Unemployment down, confidence up
Solberg and her Conservatives can thus boast that unemployment is now declining. It never went over 5 percent on a national basis, even during the worst years of the oil crisis, as booming seafood and tourism industries and a weak kroner that boosted other exports as well helped offset the cutbacks in the oil and offshore sector. “More jobs” tops the list of how the Conservatives rank their accomplishments over the past four years.
It’s also worth noting that a majority of Norwegians are feeling much more confident about the resilience of both the national economy and their own than they were three years ago. In a recent survey conducted by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), jobs and the economy weren’t even mentioned among the issues voters view as most important ahead of the September 11 election. They instead listed schools and education in general as the top issue, followed closely by health care, elder care, the environment and immigration.
That meshes well with the Conservatives’ own party program, which emphasizes not just ongoing job creation but also quicker and better health care and more improvements for public schools, transportation and defense. Solberg can boast that the waiting time for various medical treatment has declined significantly under the tenure of her health minister, Bent Høie, while triple the number of teachers are now receiving continuing education. Transportation budgets are up more than 50 percent and decades of railroad neglect are now being reversed. Solberg has also pushed through big defense budget increases and reorganization that’s controversial but aimed at making Norway’s military more efficient.
There was bound to be plenty of internal debate at the weekend meeting, however. Under Solberg’s term as prime minister, the government has backed away from earlier promises to do away with Norway’s much-debated annual tax on net worth (formueskatt, or, literally, fortune tax). Now the party’s program calls for only “moderate” tax relief, and many Conservatives who want more tax cuts are dissatisfied. The issue of whether to maintain Norway’s traditional child welfare payments (barnetrygden) to all families regardless of income and need is another source of disagreement. Two government commissions have urged scrapping the monthly payments except for low-income families who need the money, while a majority on the Conservatives’ Program Committee wants to retain them for everyone. They’re due to be challenged by other party members who want to redirect the money to make day care and after-school programs free.
Solberg is braced for internal debate over the next few days but can enjoy the enviable position of being unchallenged herself. She’s made it clear she’s ready for another four years as prime minister leading a non-socialist government coalition. The form it will take, however, is highly unclear given the low poll results for her two support parties in Parliament. The Labour Party along with a resurgent Center Party are equally ready to take over, depending on what voters decide on September 11.