Few would have thought that revival-type local meetings held by one of Norway’s smallest political parties in equally small places like Bø, Lillesand or Vestnes could ever command so much national attention. Norwegians were nonetheless bombarded through the weekend with media coverage of hymn-singing Christian Democrats gathering to vote on the political direction of their little party, because that will also likely decide the fate of the Norwegian government.
The latest numbers as of Monday morning showed support among Christian Democrats for Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition in the lead. By Sunday night, the Christian Democrats’ party faithful had elected 84 delegates who’ll vote at an upcoming extraordinary national meeting later this week to seek cooperation with Solberg’s government, with an eye to joining it. That compares to 78 delegates who’ll vote to launch negotiations with Labour and the Center Party, to form a new minority left-center government coalition and topple Solberg’s.
The race remains fairly close given the Christian Democrats’ long-held tradition of siding with other conservative, non-socialist parties in Parliament. Their leader Knut Arild Hareide, however, has asked them to switch sides and formally cooperate with and join a Labour-led government. Hareide believes that will help revive the party’s recent poor standings both at the ballot box and in the polls, and that the party known as KrF (Kristelig Folkeparti) will win more support for its policies in a cooperation with the Labour and Center parties.
Hareide’s view remains sharply contested, not just by Solberg and her government ministers who point to all the concessions made to his Christian Democrats since her coaliton won re-election in 2017, but also by a majority so far within his party. Those skeptical to being part of a minority Labour-led government point out that they’ll have to ultimately rely on support from the even more socialist parties like the Socialist Left (SV) and the Reds.
Veteran Christian Democrats like Kjell Furnes of the county of Møre og Romsdal also stressed in newspaper Aftenposten recently that “no one has attacked Christian folks more than Labour” over the years. Several top Labour politicians have made a point of not being members of the Norwegian Lutheran church, much less more conservative Christian congregations around the country. While Hareide has sought comfort in current Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre’s professed Christian beliefs, Furnes claims Christians “have not received much response from the socialist side” on issues relating to ethics or human worth. Furnes said he actually fears for the future of the Christian Democrats if a majority of them join forces with Labour. His county’s chapter, meeting in Vestnes on Saturday, ended up sending six delegates to the national meeting who’ll vote in favour of Solberg’s government, five who’ll vote for Labour and one who wants to simply remain as part of the opposition in Parliament.
After setbacks at local meetings on Friday, including a lack of support in his own home county of Hordaland, Hareide had a better day on Saturday. Christian Democrats in Trøndelag voted overwhelmingly to send far more delegates for Labour (11-2), while Sogn og Fjordane (where the Center Party is popular) voted to send four delegates who support joining a goverment with Labour and Center and just two who support Solberg’s government. The vote was even in Troms, 3-3, but on Sunday, Christian Democrats in Nordland County backed Hareide by voting to send four delegates for Labour-Center, only one for the current conservative coalition and one keen on staying in opposition.
The latter is now being called a “Grovan” vote after Hans Fredrik Grovan, currently the leader of the Christian Democrats’ delegation in Parliament. Grovan has argued strongly against creating a false “government crisis” in Norway, warning that there’s no broad support in the country to topple Solberg, who continues to enjoy support of a solid majority of Norwegians in public opinion polls. Grovan sees nothing wrong with remaining in opposition and voting from issue to issue as the party sees fit.
With 163 of the Christian Democrats’ 190 delegates at the meeting now selected, the ultimate result may be decided by the local meetings being held both on Monday in the counties of Akershus, Oslo and Vestfold, and, finally, in Østfold on Tuesday. Norwegians could brace for more breathless coverage from such places as the cultural center in Nittedal and a Salvation Army seminar center on the island of Jeløy.
No one is able to predict how the national voting at Friday’s extraordinary meeting will end up, since the local chapters alone don’t have a final say. The party’s board, Members of Parliament and the party’s women’s and youth organization also send delegates. The party is already split and not all calls for mutual respect are being heard. Hareide’s own two deputy leaders are voting against him. One of them, Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, worries that Norwegians in general won’t understand why Solberg should effectively be fired as prime minister in what many view as Hareide’s desperate attempt to revive his small party’s fortunes and gain influence. Solberg herself has already claimed that allowing such a small party to topple her government can raise questions about Norway’s democracy. Others reject such fears, noting that her coalition government still has only minority support in Parliament.
Grovan, meanwhile, is already open for a whole new round of voting if the margin on the socialist or non-socialist side is thin. That may not be popular – the drama within the Christian Democrats has put the rest of Norwegian politics on hold, with both Labour and the Socialist Left, for example, withholding their state budget proposals until the Christian Democrats have chosen sides. Politicians in all other parties may well be growing weary as well over how Hareide and his party have been grabbing the political spotlight for themselves all autumn long. They’re tired of being in the shadows and long to re-take center stage.