NEWS ANALYSIS: “Fragmented,” “unclear” and “chaotic” were among words used to describe the first organized and nationally televised debate among the leaders of Norway’s nine major political parties Monday night. One commentator described the debate, held in advance of the September 11 national election, as a “continuous attack on the (current) government’s policies,” putting its conservative leaders, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Finance Minister Siv Jensen mostly on the defensive.
Solberg later won an informal viewer poll conducted by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which traditionally arranges the first party leader debate, as making the best impression, but only by less than a percentage point ahead of arch rival Jonas Gahr Støre, head of the Labour Party. Both Støre and his party are fighting hard to regain the power they held from 2005 to 2013, when Solberg formed a minority conservative coalition and managed to hold it together for the past four years.
Now she’s struggling to win another four years as head of government, insisting that her intention is to include all four non-socialist parties in a new coalition: her Conservatives (Høyre), Jensen’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP), the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) and the Liberals (Venstre). Solberg’s critics contend her coalition is falling apart, however, mostly because its two small support parties (the Christian Democrats and Liberals) claim they’re no longer willing to cooperate with Progress because their political differences are too great. Neither of the small parties are likely to win enough votes to form a non-socialist majority with just Solberg and her Conservatives.
Eager to take over is Støre’s Labour (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap), even though it’s been lagging in the polls and has some major differences with its potential coalition partners including the protectionist but resurgent Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) and the Socialist Left party (SV). Labour has rejected any formal cooperation with the two other parties on the left side of Norwegian politics, the Greens (Miljøpartiet De Grønne, DG) and the Reds (Rødt).
They all jockeyed for attention Monday night in a debate that started out with relatively straightforward presentations of tax policy by Støre and Solberg. Their tax policy summaries defined some fundamental differences between Norway’s two largest parties that often are accused of having similar views on a variety of issues from the oil industry (both support it despite insisting that they’re environmentally conscious as well) to championing equality and restricted immigration.
Støre was allowed to lead off, defending his controversial proposal to raise taxes by NOK 15 billion over the nest four-year parliamentary period. He claimed Labour’s tax hikes are “necessary” (because Norway can no longer rely on ever-rising oil revenues) and will be “fair.” He attacked Solberg’s proposals to keep cutting taxes over the next four years because that, in his view, would contribute to more social differences. The large television audience in Arendal, where a week of political gatherings is underway, responded with applause.
Solberg also won applause, however, for promoting more tax cuts as a means of fueling economic growth and incentives for growth. Tax cuts, argued Solberg as her government partner Jensen nodded in agreement, can create more jobs, and job creation is widely viewed as the most important issue in the current election campaign. That’s when the only real “news” emerged from the debate: The Christian Democrats’ leader Knut Arild Hareide suddenly claimed he won’t go along with any more tax cuts in the next parliamentary session, because of new economic uncertainties tied to lower revenues from oil and gas.
The ensuing debate quickly degenerated into noisy exchanges where everyone was often talking at once, with both the politicians and program leaders exhibiting an unusual lack of discipline for a Norwegian debate. They have traditionally displayed remarkable civility, with candidates patiently waiting for their turn to speak. Instead, the party leaders consistently interrupted one another and tried to drown out what the other was saying. “It was difficult to hear the answers,” complained Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservatives when it was all over.
Isaksen and several others pointed to Støre as being among the most frekk (audacious) and interrupting the most often, exhibiting a new aggressive style that defied his earlier image of being “foggy” when discussing various issues. He later denied he was guilty of constant interruptions and claimed NRK’s program leaders had encouraged the candidates to take the initiative and respond spontaneously as they deemed necessary. Støre admitted “it became a bit intense” at times and he won some praise for his boldness: “I have never heard Jonas so succinct and clear before,” Kjell Terje Ringdal, who lectures on rhetoric at Christiania College in Oslo, told NRK after the debate ended. Ringdal suggested that an image of “Støre as prime minister” emerged, and that likely was Labour’s strategy.
The heated tax debate also involved the various candidates attacking each other’s tax policies and how they affect “ordinary folks.” While Støre called the government’s tax cuts “anti-social and reminded the Liberals that they were behind last year’s controversial airline seat tax, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of the Center Party (Labour’s potential government partner) claimed that the Progress Party had broken its campaign promise in 2013 not to raise road tolls in Norway. Jensen retorted that Vedum’s Center Party “loves” road tolls and that he was also “the king of property tax.” She drew laughter and applause when she shot back that listening to Vedum was akin to “hearing an arsonist talk about how to prevent fires.”
Then the debate lurched into what many called a “strange” and esoteric debate over whether so-called (and poorly defined) “Norwegian values” are under any threat. Jensen believes that increased immigration and Norway’s new cultural diversity are putting pressure on Norwegian values and society, while Vedum (in a rare case of having a similar view) stressed the need to preserve Norway’s rural and Christian heritage. The debate followed a “duel” between Jensen and Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, with Hareide attacking Jensen’s Progress Party for being decidedly “un-Christian” in its treatment and suspicion of immigrants and asylum seekers.
There were more attacks, like when Støre claimed Solberg had “married the Progress Party” by forming a government with Norway’s most right-wing party in Parliament “and that will be your legacy.” The smallest parties represented (the Reds, the Greens and the Liberals) tried to get their words in edgewise along the way but scored poorly with viewers. Trine Skei Grande of the Liberals, battling to win enough votes simply to retain representation in Parliament, won some kudos for challenging the left-center bloc and stressing the importance of equality and tolerance in Norway.
There was little if any specific discussion of importain issues like schools, elder care, health care, transport or foreign policy. Vedum of the rural-oriented Center Party hardly got a chance to talk about what he believes are the evils of centralization. “It goes fast” in such debates, Vedum said after the 90-minute session that attracted a large TV audience was over.
Solberg and Jensen didn’t get much chance either to stress how they’ve guided Norway through the past four years of an oil price collapse that posed an economic crisis, the unexpected arrival of more than 30,000 refugees in 2015 and major turbulence in foreign affairs from Brexit to the uncertainties raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin and new US President Donald Trump. Støre can make it sound as if Norway is in crisis, even though economic growth has already returned. Norway also remains one of the best countries in the world in which to live, according to various international surveys, with among the happiest citizens.
It was questionable whether voters were enlightened by the debate, and can now make up their minds over how they’ll cast their ballots. “These debates are incredibly important, because it’s on the background of them that we choose our parties and our government,” Ringdal told NRK. The answer to whether Norwegians will retain the status quo or make a turn to the left will emerge on the night of September 11, unless election results are just as “chaotic” as the debate.