Christian Democrats may topple Erna

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Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the small and struggling Christian Democrats party, put Prime Minister Erna Solberg on notice Friday afternoon. After supporting her minority Conservative coalition for the past five years, Hareide thinks the time has come to cooperate with Labour instead, meaning that Solberg’s government could fall later this autumn.

Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide wants his party to form a government with Labour. PHOTO: Kristelig Folkeparti/Simon Molvær Grimstad

An unprecedented turn to the left-wing socialist side of Norwegian politics is no by no means certain. Hareide faces strong opposition from the conservative forces within his own centrist party. They strongly disagree with Labour on such issues as liberal abortion law, familiy values, cash support for parents who stay home to care for their children, and biotechnology. On an international basis, the Christian Democrats almost always support Israel, while Labour sympathizes with the Palestinians.

Hareide sees a move into government, however, as critical for the very survival of the party. It has continued to lose voter support, down to just 3 percent in the latest public opinion poll this week, and has lost other centrist parties like the Center Party that has long aligned itself with Labour and the non-socialist Liberals who joined Solberg’s government earlier this year. The Christian Democrats have become lonely at the center, and under constant pressure since they suddenly hold the swing vote on almost all contended issues. The small party is thus powerful but has utterly failed to win new voters.

It’s all led to a huge paradox for Hareide and his flock. They dearly wanted Erna Solberg to continue as prime minister and would gladly have accepted her standing invitation to join her government, if it hadn’t been for the even more conservative Progress Party that’s been in Solberg’s coalition since 2013. Hareide maintains that the political distance between his party’s values and those of the Progress Party are simply too great. He claimed last fall that the Christian Democrats could not sit in a government with Progress and that’s still the case, as he sees it. He said on Friday he’d be most happy in a government made up of his party, the Conservatives and the Center Party, “but unfortunately that’s not on the menu.”

Hareide speaking to the national board of his Christian Democrats party on Friday, and proposing that they topple Erna Solberg’s government and form a new one with Labour. PHOTO: Kristelig folkeparti

That means, ironically enough, that Hareide now stands to topple the prime minister he wants (Solberg) in order for his party to form a government with Labour and the Center Party, but without their former left-center coalition party, the Social Left party (SV). Labour, Center and the Christian Democrats would have just 42 percent of the current seats in Parliament, though, so they’d presumably at least need an agreement with SV and help from the Reds and Greens to win on issues.

Hareide told his party’s central board Friday afternoon that the Christian Democrats can’t keep sitting as a support party for Solberg’s government until the next national election in 2021, and should go into a government this fall. “The longer we wait, the more it will hurt the party,” he said when finally announcing his own long-awaited decision on a new course. Therefore, he said, “it’s necessary to evaluate the Labour Party” in a centrist-based partnership with the Center Party. That, he claims, “will make a difference” on issues involving support for farmers and rural districts, poverty and “which direction the country will take, nationally and internationally.”

Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre was predictably pleased, calling Hareide’s personal decision “correct, historic and brave.” Conservative government minister said they were “surprised” that Hareide would actually take part in toppling Solberg as prime minister. His own party, however, may prevent him from doing so.

In the media spotlight
Hareide’s speech climaxed an extraordinary week during which his small party received a barrage of media coverage. First the party’s own youth organization had voted to recommend just the opposite of what Hareide is proposing, by recommending that the party join Solberg’s government. Since three of the Progress Party’s most controversial right-wing politicians (Sylvi Listhaug, Per Sandberg and Per-Willy Amundsen) are no longer members of the government, a majority of the Christian Democrats’ youth figured they should have no problem serving with Progress’ more moderate ministers led by Siv Jensen as finance minister. Hareide has said himself he has few problems with Jensen herself.

But then Hareide launched a book he’d just written entitled Det som betyr noe (roughly translated, “What’s meaningful”). In it, he lashes out at the Progress Party and heaps praise on Labour leader Støre, writing that “he (Støre) impresses everyone who knows him with his enormous knowledge, good values and presence.”  Støre, who has publicly called himself a Christian, has in turn been courting Hareide for the past two years in order to win government power.

Then other Labour Party officials said they would support political cooperation with the Christian Democrats, certain that they could find “good solutions” together. The Center Party has gotten along well with the Christian Democrats, especially on protectionistic rural policy. Even Audun Lysbakken, leader of the more left-wing SV, said he wouldn’t reject cooperation with the Christian Democrats in a left-center government. It’s unlikely, though, that he would be happy with a Labour-Center-Christian Democrats government that doesn’t include his own Socialist Left that’s got twice as many voters behind it.

Warned against a left turn
Then the non-socialist parties started speaking up, with the Conservatives’ “chief ideologist” Torbjørn Røe Isaksen warning the Christian Democrats that Labour itself is turning more left than it has for a long time, in its cooperation with not only SV but also the Reds party, which ranks as Norway’s most left-wing. Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande complained that her old centrist partner Hareide “was downplaying the victories his party has had” while supporting Solberg’s conservative coalition. That included how Grande and Hareide forced Solberg’s coalition, for example, to drop plans for oil drilling off Lofoten.

As late as this week, Hareide’s Christian Democrats secured a majority in Parliament with the government’s plan to move forward with its controversial regional reform program that’s raised an uproar in Finnmark and other counties that don’t want to merge with their neighbours. Hareide himself has stated that he wants to continue as leader of the Christian Democrats even if his turn to the left is steered back to the right by a majority within his own party.

The big question is on which issue the Christian Democrats might join the opposition in Parliament to topple Solberg’s government and form their own. Several of the thorniest issues, like regional reform and more financial aid to farmers, have been resolved even before Parliament opens next week. They’ll need to find something in the government’s budget they don’t like, or strengthen their criticism over the government’s record on security and preparedness issues.

Hareide first must find support within his party to join the opposition. He needs to sell his plan for winning influence. “In a government where the Progress Party is big and we are small, we will, in my opinion, face problems with pushing through our direction for society,” Hareide told his board on Friday. “We want a government that’s heavy at the center. We can’t stay where we are. We have only two choices: Join a government one way or another. We need to make this decision this fall.” Berglund