It was called the year’s biggest and toughest job interview in Norway: Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives and her challenger Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party squared off in a nationally televised debate from Tromsø Tuesday night. Buoyed by a jump in new public opinion polls earlier in the day, Solberg had the advantage going in, but then Støre went on the attack, putting Solberg on the defensive and prompting some commentators to declare him the debate winner.
Just hours before the debate began came news that Støre was losing more ground in the race against Solberg. Not only had she leaped ahead of him in the prime minister’s race, her Conservative Party has suddenly become bigger than Labour. A new poll conducted for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) showed that 46.8 percent of Norwegian voters prefer Solberg as prime minister over Støre, who only attracted 36.8 percent of the vote. Then came results of the latest party standings in a poll compiled from August 24-28 by research firm Norstat, also for NRK.
It was nothing short of disastrous for Labour, which lost 4.6 points from the previous Norstat/NRK poll to claim just 24.4 percent of the vote. The Conservatives jumped 3.3 points to win 25.7 percent of the vote. Even though that’s lower than the party’s election result of 26.3 percent in 2013, it would tranlate into an historic election result if the numbers hold or even continue to increase until Election Day on September 11: The Conservatives haven’t been bigger than Labour in an election result since 1924.
Solberg retained her characteristic calm, smiling broadly and calling the poll results “very nice,” quickly adding that the actual election is on September 11 and that’s all that really matters. Støre stated that the numbers for his party “will be higher” in actual voting.
Solberg’s government coalition partner, the conservative Progress Party, also gained to claim 15 percent of the vote. Even though Solberg and Progress Party leader Siv Jensen seem to get along well and arguably have governed well together over the past four years, Solberg had to deal on Tuesday with more provocative campaign tactics by Jensen’s attention-grabbing party fellow, Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug. That still may spoil Solberg’s hopes for her government’s re-election, but Solberg’s two small support parties, the Liberals and Christian Democrats, managed to eke out enough voter support to give the non-socialist parties a slim majority in Parliament over the leftist parties.
It was Listhaug’s highly controversial attempts to cater to the ultra-right wing of Norwegian politics that sent Støre on the attack at the debate, which was hosted by NRK. It began and ended on a relatively friendly note but heated up dramatically when Støre launched his assault not directly on Listhaug herself but on Solberg for failing to control her. He called Solberg the “team leader” of her government but claimed “you don’t take responsibility” for Listhaug’s habit of, in his opinion, trying to divide Norwegians instead of unify them and trying to spread a fear of foreigners. “I don’t think you see that,” Støre said.
Encouraged by applause from the audience, Støre suggested that Solberg thus has “changed the tone” of Norwegian politics. He blamed Solberg for “slipping” the Progress Party into government, instead of blaming all those who voted for Progress in 2013 and thus gave them a stab at government power for the first time ever. “You have changed Norway,” Støre charged, adding that Solberg had changed the Conservative Party as well.
‘Extremely hard confrontation’
That put Solberg on the defensive at an early stage in the debate but she recovered quickly, retorting that her government had made Norway warmer, not colder, and noting that her government has resettled more refugees in Norway than any government has before. Commentators called it all an “extremely hard confrontation” over Listhaug and later said neither Solberg nor Støre lost the debate, with both performing well during the 90 minutes of debate and direct questioning from the audience.
The questions from the residents of Northern Norway assembled in Tromsø started out with the controversial practice of sending rejected refugees back to their homelands: Solberg said her government couldn’t promise any changes and Støre didn’t either, but would ensure that it was safe to return them. Several questions touched on another reorganization of defense operations in Northern Norway that residents are protesting, and went on to schools and the need for more teachers.
Temperatures rose when Solberg was asked whether she could or would limit local governments’ ability to levy property tax. She said her party opposed property tax but that municipalities would retain their right to impose it. Støre blamed property tax, which most often is levied by Labour- and Center Party-led local governments, on the state’s failure to provide them with adequate economic support. Solberg rejected that, urging Støre to be honest and admit that her government has raised municipal funding dramatically during the past four years.
Both Solberg and Støre got critical questions from the audience over their support for the oil and gas industry, with one young woman from Tana in Finnmark wondering why they didn’t seem to realize that surveys show more than 50 percent of Norwegians oppose more drilling and production, especially off the coast of Lofoten and Vesterålen. Solberg and Støre were even put on the same side when challenged on their oil policies by journalist and energy expert Anders Bjartnes. He raised the risks involved when both major political parties in a small country support oil industry expansion. Neither Solberg nor Støre would promise any changes, with Støre saying “we can’t just turn off the pumps.” Some political commentators attribute the growth of small, more oil-skeptical parties to the two major parties’ refusal to curtail oil for fear of the economic consequences.
Other questions involved everything from Solberg’s impressions of Donald Trump after brief meetings with him last spring (she claimed he was difficult to judge but his hair was the same in real life as in the photos) to whether the candidates would boost funding for Norwegian language classes for immigrants (both said they would). Solberg was even asked about health care programs for overweight Norwegians.
The entire debate format was much less formal and more personal than usual, with NRK even inserting segments with the candidates’ spouses talking about them, and airing what were supposed to be comical sketches on each candidate’s CV but which received lots of criticism on social media for being silly and crude. The two party leaders, along with those of seven other parties vying for seats in Parliament, will be back in action next Friday for the last major debate before the election on September 11.