Prime Minister Erna Solberg isn’t celebrating yet. New political posturing during the weekend suggests the future of her conservative government coalition remains insecure, even though the Christian Democrats voted to launch negotiations to join her government and give it a majority in Parliament.
The Christian Democrats’ 98-90 vote on Friday shows that the small centrist party, which holds the swing vote in Parliament, remains deeply divided. Its leader Knut Arild Hareide, who lost his bid to switch sides and form a new government led by the Labour Party, now says he may not resign after after all. He also seems to have a new plan for launching a new effort to team up with Labour and Center Party, while several of his supporters have openly said they hope negotiations to join Solberg’s government will fail.
Despite myriad calls for reconciliation among the Christian Democrats, they seem to have dug in their heels and remain split over whether to side with the non-socialist conservatives or the left-center bloc. “The drama within the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) is not over,” wrote political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday. “It has just gone into a new phase.”
The new phase will first involve negotiations between a Christian Democrats delegation led by Hareide’s rival deputy leader Kjell Ingolf Ropstad and the coalition government’s three parties (the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Liberals) over the state budget for next year. That’s been characterized as the “easy” part, since Solberg’s coalition already filled its budget proposal to Parliament with lots of KrF-friendly funding, like more money for some of the Christian Democrats’ priorities including foreign aid.
Solberg’s coalition also already seems willing to give the Christian Democrats three ministerial posts, which was the number granted to the Liberal Party (equally small and centrist as the Christian Democrats) when it joined Solberg’s coalition in January. The Conservatives are expected to give up two ministerial posts while Progess will up one.
Hans Fredrik Grøvan, deputy leader of the Christian Democrats’ delegation in Parliament, told DN that it will be important for his divided party to fill ministerial posts with members from both its left and right sides, as part of efforts at reconciliation. “It’s all about legitimacy on the team that will represent us in the government,” Grovan said. Both Hareide’s supporters and Ropstad’s will need some anchoring for their positions within the coalition.
A poll conducted among Christian Democrats members by state broadcaster NRK, meanwhile, indicates that they most want control over the ministries charged with children’s and equality issues (currently held by the Conservatives’ Linda Hofstad Helleland), either health, education or foreign aid (also currently under Conservatives control) or agriculture (currently under Progress Party control). The Christian Democrats do not want responsibility, meanwhile, for demanding ministries such as defense or oil and energy, where they’d be confronted with issues they’d rather avoid and may have to front positions that defy their own politics.
Then comes the tough part, when the Christian Democrats are likely to make demands that won’t be welcomed by the coalition, like “adjustments” in the state abortion law and higher monthly welfare payments to all families with children. While Solberg and her Conservatives are ready to negotiate, both the Progress Party and the Liberals are firm about not wanting any abortion law changes, for example, or moves away from liberalizing Norway’s highly regulated and subsidized agricultual sector.
Solberg’s tough job
Solberg faces an extremely tough job, trying to both appease the Christian Democrats, which hold just 4 percent of the vote, but keep their influence in proportion at the same time. She wasn’t celebrating their decision to at least launch government talks, noting that Hareide put the entire country into a difficult position when he proposed shifting his party’s long-standing support for the non-socialist side of Norwegian politics to the left side. “There have clearly been folks who have felt that a new government election was being held, but that only members of the Christian Democrats were allowed to take part,” Solberg told DN on Sunday. “That’s a special situation just a year after (last autumn’s) election.”
The question now is how Hareide, who put off his threatened resignation until after Ropstad concludes government negotiations, will carry out his still-powerful role within the party. His side lost, making him legally obligated to carry out the will of the party’s majority. He specified during the weekend, however, that the majority only voted to explore the possibility of joining Solberg’s government. If negotiations are not deemed satisfactory, Hareide sees an opening to launch into negotiations with the Labour and Center parties instead. He told NRK on Saturday that he views it as “natural that I lead the party into talks that eventually can be with other parties.”
Ultimate questions over loyalty
He’s thus waiting to see what happens, even though he lost on Friday. “This is not unproblematic,” commentator Alstadheim wrote. “The party pointed in the conservative direction. How loyal will he (Hareide) be, when he already wrote an entire book and has spent the past five weeks arging against that?” Other leading Christian Democrats who lost were equally unrepentant, with Geir Jørgen Bekkevold, for example, writing on social media during the weekend that “it’s not certain the (government negotiations with Solberg) will succeed! This can still go well in the end!” Bekkevold and many others still view Hareide as “captain” of the Christian Democrats’ team and don’t want to join any government that includes the Progess Party not matter what concessions are won during government negotiations.
It’s still possible for Hareide and his supporters to basically sabotage the negotiations led by Ropstad. The party may also simply implode, leaving its two factions to join other parties. Then Solberg’s Conservatives may ultimately prevail. Talks between the coalition and the Christian Democrats’ delegation were due to get underway this week. Something must be resolved by the end of the month, with a framework for next year’s state budget due by November 27.