Political ‘D-Day’ tests democracy

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NEWS ANALYSIS: “Is Norway still a democracy?” read the headline on a letter to the editor of the country’s biggest newspaper, Aftenposten, this week. It reflected the indignation of Norwegian voters who don’t understand how a small party like the Christian Democrats, voting on their political direction on Friday, could actually threaten to bring down Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives-led coalition government that she retained after last year’s parliamentary election.

Knut Arild Hareide (center), embattled leader of the Christian Democrats (KrF), has kept smiling through the storm he created when he proposed that his party should switch political sides, from the right to the left. His two deputy leaders Kjell Ingolf Ropstad (left) and Olaug Bollestad (right) have kept smiling, too, even though they disagree with Hareide and want to keep the party on the non-socialist side of Norwegian politics. PHOTO: Kristelig Folkeparti

The Christian Democrats’ leader, Knut Arild Hareide, had even declared that his party wanted Solberg to be prime minister. “Election results don’t apply any longer,” continued letter-writer Tove Steinbo, identified as an author and public speaker. “The leader of one of the parties that received the fewest votes (4.2 percent) has now decided to topple the government in the middle of its term … how is this possible? We can’t have this!”

Norway’s parliamentary system does indeed allow for the consequences of Hareide’s change of heart. It’s now clearly testing many voters’ feelings of fairness, though, and raising concerns that they’ll lose faith in politicians and the value of the ballots they cast. Some voters, inluding economist and professor Knut Anton Mork, are even hoping that all the bråk (noise) created by the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) will bring about the party’s demise:

“KrF is in crisis,” wrote Mork in a column in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday. “Voter flight and internal dissension threatens to crush the party. As a former Christian Democrat, I hope such forces will succeed.”

Those were tough words as a “D-Day” atmosphere spread at the end of what some call one of the most dramatic weeks ever in Norwegian politics. The destiny of not just the Christian Democrats but also the government itself was at stake on Friday, when the party would finally decide whether they’ll back Solberg and her  conservative coalition, or seek to form a new left-center government led by the Labour Party.

Pressing issues
It wasn’t just Steinbo who was questioning how such a small party could bring this about, and whether that threatens Norway’s democracy. The issue is so pressing that newspaper Dagsavisen felt compelled to address it in an editorial this week, also because the results of the Christian Democrats’ vote (due Friday evening) will have consequences for years ahead, and influence how both the Conservatives and Labour form their own policies.

Christian Democrats voting themselves at one of the many extraordinary meetings held among local party chapters this fall. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“Some have pointed out that this (the power wielded by the Christian Democrats) is undemocratic,” Dagsavisen editorialized on Wednesday. “The argument seems to be that it’s completely out of proportion when a small party with around 4 percent of the vote can decide which government Norway will have.” The paper also noted how the Christian Democrats and Hareide himself have been ridiculed of late, and even called “a silly little party.”

Dagsavisen went on to lash out at such, however, and argued that Norway’s democracy is enhanced when small voices are heard. The bottom line is that the Christian Democrats, when they decided not to join Solberg’s government last fall or even formally agree to support it as they had during Solberg’s first term from 2013 to 2017, wound up with the swing vote in Parliament on any contested issue and now, on what type of government the country should have.

“That doesn’t mean the Christian Democrats alone decide on a government,” Dagsavisen noted. They can simply form a majority with other parties on the left or the right: “It’s of course not just their 4 percent of the voters but a majority in Parliament that provides a power base for a government. It shouldn’t be necessary to point that out.”

All about forming a majority
It’s become necessary, however, because of all the claims that the Christian Democrats have too much power. Dagsavisen, which has long ties to the Labour Party, characterized that as questioning the very legitimacy of opposition.

Many nonetheless are, and questions were also rising over whether the now deeply split Christian Democrats will survive as party. Some new members who joined to support Hareide’s desire to turn left have already said they’ll leave the party if it remains alled with the Conservatives. Other conservative members claim they’ll leave if their party sides with Labour. Instead of reinvigorating his party’s sagging fortunes at the ballot box in recent years, Hareide may have irreversibly torn the party apart. By late this week, members were even quarreling over how they should conduct the voting on their political direction (which issues should be decided first, and whether voting should be open or anonymous) instead of just over which side they’ll actually vote for.

Results of all the drama that has overshadowed and put off most all other political issues this fall, including debate over the state budget, were due Friday evening. Whichever side wins, Hareide’s or his deputy leaders’, will need to heal wounds and hope for a resurrection before the next parliamentary election in 2021.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund