Hareide scrambles to ward off defeat

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the tiny and tormented Christian Democrats party, has set off a political earthquake in Norway that’s now left him scrambling to avoid being swallowed up by it. He called for a crisis meeting of the party’s board on Monday, following some stunning rejections during the weekend of his revelation that Norway needs a new Labour-led government.

This man, Knut Arild Hareide, has put the future of the Norwegian government at stake and shaken his own Christian Democrats party to its very core. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Hareide has been confronted with the fact that his flock does not seem to be following his dramatic turn to the left side of Norwegian politics. After decades of being a centrist party on the non-socialist side, Hareide thinks the Christian Democrats should break its vows to the Conservative Party and seek formation of a new government with Labour and the Center Party. Many view his new highly controversial strategy as a desperate attempt to win back voters, secure his party’s existence and give it more power as enabling formation of a new left-center government.

Even though the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) only won 4.2 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary election, they wound up with the swing vote in Parliament. That gives Hareide and his party remarkable power to topple Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her minority conservative coalition, and bring parts of the opposition to power, no matter how popular Solberg is and no matter how Norwegians voted last fall.

Hareide’s problem, however, is that so far, a majority of Christian Democrats don’t agree with him that Labour represents the truth, the light and the way. On Sunday, a majority of the party’s women’s organizations (KrF Kvinner) around the country voted for the status quo, to remain in opposition themselves. Only 29 percent want the party to topple Solberg and form a new minority coalition government led by Labour. Another 34 percent urge joining Solberg’s Conservatives-led coalition, which would then have a majority in Parliament, while 39 percent want the party to continue as a swing vote in opposition.

The party as a whole will vote early next month on its three options: Joining Solberg’s government, forming a new left-center government with Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre as prime minister, or remaining in opposition. In the run-up to that vote, all of the Christian Democrats’ chapters around the country are huddling to vote on the options themselves and then send delegates to the national meeting set for November 2.

The women’s organizations ended up on Sunday electing 12 delegates who will vote at the November 2 meeting. Six will vote for the Christian Democrats to remain in opposition, three will vote to join the Solberg government and three will vote to topple Solberg and form a new left-center government led by Labour and Støre.

That was no victory for Hareide and he’d suffered even more the day before. At an extraordinary meeting of the Christian Democrats’ biggest and arguably most power chapter, KrF Rogaland, on Saturday, members all but turned their back on Hareide. More than twice as many voted to join Solberg’s government (91) than join Labour (43). That prompted them to opt for a “winner takes all” strategy that will send 16 delegates to the November 2 meeting, with fully 15 of them voting to join Solberg’s government.

It was a crushing blow for Hareide, who responded Sunday night by calling for the crisis meeting of the party’s board, where he’ll urge that delegates elected to vote on November 2 reflect the actual results of voting on the various options and not “the winner takes all.”

That was widely viewed by commentators on Monday as another desperate attempt by Hareide to win more support for his view that his party should turn from the right- to the left-side of Norwegian politics. Hareide admits he’s “shaking up” his party “to the core of its existence” by challenging long-held political views. He now believes the Christian Democrats’ views on issues will have a better chance of prevailing in a Labour-Center government than in the current coalition led by Solberg’s Conservatives and the most right-wing party in Parliament, Progress. The Liberals joined Solberg’s coalition in January but that hasn’t won them any more voters, according to recent polls. Hareide’s goal number-one is to attract more voters and prevent his small party from sliding into oblivion.

Perhaps his biggest problem is that the Christian Democrats’ policies and platform simply don’t appeal to the vast majority of Norwegians. Norway has long become a secular society that’s moved away from the Christian Democrats’ desires for more restrictions on abortion, high “sin” taxes on things like alcohol, tobacco and cosmetics and strict regulation of the agriculture sector to protect farmers from market competition. Hareide insists his party simply wants a “warmer” society. Around 96 percent of voters clearly think it’s warm enough.

Solberg, frustrated over Hareide’s refusal to recognize concessions made to his party in return for the Christian Democrats’ support over her five years in office so far, finally struck back last week. She voiced what many Norwegians have expressed, also through a satire on state broadcaster NRK, that Hareide was resorting to pure power plays that could damage Norway’s political system and even dent its democracy. His actions are basically aimed at overturning last fall’s election results, even with polls showing that a solid majority of Norwegians still prefer her as prime minister over Støre. She has stressed that there’s little support in Norway for a change of government at present, and that Hareide hasn’t settled on any single issue that would warrant a change.

“Now it’s a matter of who will run this country, whether I or Jonas (Gahr Støre) will be prime minister,” Solberg told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) while on her way to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last week. “Støre did not receive a mandate at the last election to become prime minister.” His Labour Party, in fact, was viewed as logging its poorest election result ever, making it all the more remarkable that Hareide now is trying to usher Støre into the prime minister’s office after all, with the hopes his small party will thus gain power as well.

Solberg has nonetheless left her door open to the Christian Democrats, should they ultimately decide to join her government after all, likely without Hareide. He has indirectly put his own position on the line as well as his party’s and Norwegian politics as a whole. Everything from state budget deliberations to other matters in Parliament are mostly on hold until this small party with just eight seats at present comes to terms with itself, and the fuss Hareide has created is resolved.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund