NEWS ANALYSIS: Amidst all the analyzing and agonizing that’s gone on since Norway’s parliamentary election results emerged, one thing is clear: Winners lost and losers won. As they gamely consoled themselves, top Norwegian politicians with seats in Parliament had best buckle their seatbelts for a bumpy ride ahead.
The civility that still mostly characterizes Norwegian politics was evident as party leaders hugged and even congratulated one another just before heading into a late-night wrap-up of Monday’s election results. Now the real work begins, as incumbent Prime Minister Erna Solberg prepares to lead another conservative government, the make-up of which remains highly unclear.
At least one face will disappear, after news broke Friday that Solberg is losing Børge Brende as her foreign minister. He’d been among those viewed as most likely to continue in his role, but Brende opted to accept a new job as president of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Solberg will need to find his replacement by mid-October.
She also needs to smooth lots of feathers ruffled during the election campaign and find a way to maintain consistent support from the two small parties (the Liberals and Christian Democrats) that backed her incumbent coalition with the Progess Party for the past four years. That’s not going to be easy, since Solberg is among the winners who lost: Even though the four non-socialist parties on her side of the politial spectrum won a majority of seats in Parliament, they collectively lost eight of the seats they held in the last parliamentary period and are thus weaker. As newspaper Aftenposten put it on Friday, Solberg has no majority against her at present, but her own majority is thin indeed.
Of more concern is that neither the Christian Democrats nor the Liberals is willing to sign any sort of formal agreements to support a new Conservative-Progress government. They blame some of their own poor election results on their failure to get enough credit for Solberg’s and Progress leader Siv Jensen’s accomplishments. Most importantly, both small parties were mightily offended during the campaign by Progress’ controversial and tough-talking immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug, who worked hard to ensure votes from Progress’ most right-wing constituency but alienated both support parties in the process.
Solberg is thus hoping that both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats will now actually join a new four-party government coalition, and so are many others who think Solberg and Jensen did a good job together and want their policies and projects to continue. The best way for the non-socialists to do that, many argue, is for all four of their parties to share government power (commensurate with their election results) in the form of ministerial positions and daily participation in policy formulation. They could then also debate issues internally instead of risking prestige through potentially divisive public conflicts. Powerful voices within Norwegian business and even the environmental movement in Norway are urging both the Liberals and Christian Democrats to swallow their pride, take on government responsibility and thus prevent the left-center parties in opposition from toppling the government.
That’s a real threat, since both the Center Party and the Socialist Left (SV) party emerged as the real winners of the election but lost a stab at government power because Labour did so poorly. Center doubled its seats in Parliament, while SV gained four. Both are chomping at the bit to topple Solberg’s conservative coalition at the first opportunity, if they can lure the Christian Democrats, for example, over to their side. The two most radical parties to win representation in Parliament, the Reds and the Greens, will also likely support some of the left-center coalition’s proposals.
Meanwhile, all the parties are now in the midst of a post-election “time-out” until the political horse-trading begins. Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande, who campaigned all summer, has taken a brief holiday. Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide, who’s been viewed as both a loser because of historically poor election results and a winner because of the swing-vote power his party now has, planned to take a long weekend off. Solberg is heading to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly early next week. Labour is licking its wounds and trying to figure out what went wrong. Progress, meanwhile, is gathering for a central board meeting where government strategy will likely top the agenda.
Under Norway’s constitutional monarchy system, Solberg doesn’t need to seek King Harald V’s permission to form a new government. A coalition she leads can simply continue even with new faces. The new session of Parliament doesn’t officially open until October 9 and the current government’s budget is due to be presented October 12 and even Brende has agreed to stick around until after that. If there are any major changes in Solberg’s coalition, they may not be officially presented until after the budget presentation. Even though the Christian Democrats may proceed with their stated intention to join the opposition in Parliament, they want Solberg to remain prime minister and have promised to support her coalition, at least through the autumn.
Actual negotiations over the make-up of a new government will start next Thursday evening, after Solberg returns from the UN in New York. And then there’s a chance that both the Liberals and Hareide will decide to join a government led by Solberg after all. It’s unlikely the problematic Listhaug will disappear, but Progress may moderate some its stands after winning re-election as well: Solberg and Jensen have worked well together and Progress has learned the art of compromise. Solberg is unlikely to announce any ministerial changes until she knows which parties will actually govern with her.