Alarms ring around government talks

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NEWS ANALYSIS: They were all smiles just a week ago, when the leaders of Norway’s four non-socialist parties launched talks in earnest to form an expanded government coalition. Now alarms are ringing over some deep disagreements among them, just as the left-center opposition parties in Parliament claim another majority in the latest public opinion polls.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (left) wrote on social media that Kjell Magne Ropstad of the Christian Democrats (second from left) had urged the four non-socialist party leaders to “take a glass in front of the fireplace” at the historic inn in Hadeland where government talks are taking place. “He thought it would put us in a good mood for the negotiations. That’s right!” Solberg wrote. Ropstad’s glass doesn’t appear to hold wine, however. At right, Progress Party leader Siv Jensen and Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Statsministeren kontor

The results of the last national election in 2017 still count the most in forming a government. The deputy leader of the Labour Party told state broadcaster NRK this week, however, that current poll results indicate the public would favour a new left-center coalition government, if Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s current conservative coalition fails to achieve majority government status. Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre has made it clear he’d be more than willing to take over as prime minister if he can get the Christian Democrats to switch sides and team up with his party and the Center Party.

The latter jumped the most in the latest January poll conducted by research firm Norstat for NRK and newspaper Aftenposten. The Center Party gained 1.8 points to claim 12.1 percent of the vote, almost exactly the same as Solberg’s biggest government partner, the Progress Party. It fell three points to claim just 12.2 percent of the vote.

Solberg’s own Conservative Party offset some of that by gaining two points, to 27 percent, on par with Labour’s 27.3 percent, but both her small government partner the Liberals and her potential partner, the Christian Democrats, fared poorly and fell under the limit of 4 percent for full representation in Parliament. With the Liberals now holding just 3.1 percent of the vote, according to the latest poll, and the Christian Democrats with just 3.3 percent, neither would be granted enough seats to give the non-socialists a majority.

Their election numbers were better in 2017, which explains why Solberg is so keen to bring the Christian Democrats into her fold and finally gain majority power for her coalition, at least until the next election in 2021. Reports are leaking out of the current government negotiations that began January 2, however, that the parties are hung up on everything from climate issues to immigration, especially the latter. Even though arrivals of asylum seekers are at record lows, and immigration rules already have been tightened, the Progress Party isn’t satisfied and wants to further restrict the numbers of UN-certified refugees that Norway takes in, along with rules allowing reunification of immigrant families.

Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party, shown here challenging the Labour Party’s Hadia Tajik when her party held government power, is now challenging his own party during negotiations to expand the government coalition in which it’s sat since 2013. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Christian Tybring-Gjedde, one of the Progress Party’s most far-right politicians, already thinks his party has made far too many compromises in the current coalition. He represents the party’s most anti-immigrant members, and told newspaper Dagsavisen this week that he thinks their tolerance level has already been passed. “I thinks there’s a lot of frustration among the party’s Members of Parliament,” he said, confirmed when only 12 of 21 members voted to approve compromises made with the Christian Democrats over the state budget. Fully nine voted against the budget pact, even though that risked their own government falling.

Newspaper Aftenposten noted on Wednesday how there are splits between the Progress Party’s MPs and its government ministers, and between the government and the party’s voters. That could explain the party’s loss of favour in public opinion polls, if its voters are defecting.

Tybring-Gjedde confirmed that he’d been called up to Hadeland, where the government negotiations are taking place, to discuss issues with the party’s negotiators. They include party leader and finance minister Siv Jensen, deputy leaders Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Sylvi Listhaug and the leader of the party’s parliamentary delegation Hans Andreas Limi. There’s no question that political differences between the Progress Party and the Christian Democrats pose the biggest threat to Prime Minister Solberg’s effort to form a new government platform with all four parties.

Some pundits wondered whether the Christian Democrats’ Kjell Magne Ropstad (far right) was closing his eyes in silent prayer when Prime Minister Erna Solberg formally launched government talks in Hadeland last week. Standing next to Ropstad is the Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande, who also represents a small party that critics claim shouldn’t have so much influence. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Tybring-Gjedde seemed to view his inclusion positively, saying the request for his input in government talks was “something new” and an indication that the party was trying to anchor its negotiating position as firmly as possible within its parliamentary delegation. He went on, however, to once again speak disparagingly of the Christian Democrats, calling them “a dying party” that “has no future.” He pointed to its poor showing not only in the polls but to its worst election result ever when it won only 4.2 percent of the vote in 2017: “It has marginal support and sharp opinions that have little backing within the general population.” Tybring-Gjedde is not alone in his opinion that parties as small as the Christian Democrats and the Liberals shouldn’t be granted as much influence as they aften are.

Solberg, who left the negotiating table herself to make an official visit to India earlier this week and then launch into issues at the annual gathering of the national employers’ organization NHO, remains keen to seek compromise and get her flock to finally grab real government power. She faces huge obstacles, though, given splits within both the Christian Democrats and Liberal parties as well. Only her Conservatives seem fully united behind her. She could gain some comfort earlier ths week, however, when newspaper VG reported that the much-debated abortion issue may not be such a difficult issue in the negotiations after all. While the Christian Democrats want to tighten current abortion law, 15 of the party’s 16 county leaders said it’s important but indicated it may not cause the talks to fall apart.

Kjetil B Alstadheim, political commentator for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted even before the talks began that Solberg was “trying to form a winning team with three losers.” She has remained optimistic and is unaccustomed to losing herself. Even if all the issues are sorted out, she’ll then face a challenge sorting out ministerial posts in a new coalition. Progress has already claimed it’s unwilling to give up its political control of ministries like finance, oil and energy, justice and transport. They may release their grip on agriculture, elder care and fisheries, though, which could placate the Christian Democrats.

Other political commentators are suggesting that, given all the disputes, the Labour and Center parties’ dream of taking over may still be possible. Lars Nehru Sand at NRK points to how voters are defecting from Progress, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, meaning that even if Solberg succeeds at forming a majority coalition government right now, it may not last beyond the next election in 2021.

There’s no clear deadline for when a decision will be made regarding formation of majority coalition. It took two weeks for Solberg to expand her coalition with the addition of the Liberals last January. That suggests the outcome of the current talks should be announced within the next week.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund