It couldn’t have been the happiest of birthdays for Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, who turned 50 on Saturday. Not only has she had to deal with a string of errant party colleagues in government, now she faces a road toll rebellion that may collide head on with her government colleagues and topple their conservative leadership project of the past six years.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was reporting that if Jensen can’t get her government colleagues to crack down on road tolls (called bompenger in Norwegian), her own party may leave (and thus topple) the government coalition. Rising and much more extensive road tolls have become such a political issue in recent months that they can bring down the majority government itself.
The Progress Party long opposed road tolls to finance road building. Since winning government power in 2013, however, road tolls have exploded all over Norway and now are used to finance not just highway improvements but also transportation projects including bicycle lanes, trains and mass transit, all aimed at getting Norwegian out of their cars.
Even though most road toll systems are initiated by local governments, not least the one Oslo greatly and controversially expanded during the weekend on Jensen’s won birthday, they also finance a big portion of projects in which the state government shares costs. Opposition to more and higher road tolls has become so unpopular in many areas that they’ve spawned creation of new political parties aimed at abolishing them.
That in turn poses a direct threat to Jensen’s Progress Party, which spent its own first 40 years as a protest party until winning government power for the first time with Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives. An anti-road toll party in Bergen has suddenly emerged as the city’s biggest, while FNB (Folkeaskjonen Nei til mer Bompenger, Folks against more road tolls) was out protesting in the rain all over Oslo on Saturday.
The anti-road toll parties are “stealing” the Progress Party’s own voters, leading to the rebellion that resulted in Progress calling an emergency national board meeting on Wednesday. NRK reported that it will be “dramatic” if Jensen can’t extract anti-road toll measures and support from her state government colleagues.
NRK reported that the unrest within Progress is so strong that the danger it will topple the government has never been so high. “The road toll issue is extraordinary and critical for the party,” one unnamed party member told NRK. “Large segments of the party are in uproar and demand new and major breakthroughs immediately. If we don’t get them, I don’t think things will go well this time.”
Many political commentators and voters themselves have marvelled that the Conservatives’ coalition with Progress has survived as long as it has. Jensen and Solberg have worked well together and managed to hold the coalition together, not least after the addition of the two small Liberals and Christian Democrats parties finally gave the coalition a majority in Parliament. Hard-core Progress politicians, however, have long complained that their party has made too many compromises, and thus sunk in public opinion polls. More compromise on road tolls can ruin its chances at this fall’s municipal elections.
“I don’t know which rabbit Siv can pull out of the hat to quell the opposition this time,” another unidentified Progress Party member told NRK. “The party’s local politicians have nothing to offer voters on road tolls, and nothing much to counter the anti-road toll parties.” In the most recent public opinion poll in Bergen, the Progress Party held only 2.7 percent of the vote, compared to 25.4 percent held by the new anti-road toll party. That shows how unpopular Bergen’s own new road tolls are.
Jensen’s predecessor as Progress Party leader, Carl I Hagen, has proposed tapping Norway’s huge Oil Fund as an alternative means of paying for transport improvements. Neither Jensen nor her new deputy leader Sylvi Listhaug viewed that as realistic. Now some party members are demanding that Hagen’s plan be resurrected.
Others say Jensen had no alternatives to road toll financing as of early this week, but she and her transport minister Jon Georg Dale were reportedly working hard to find some. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that they’re trying, among other efforts, to get government colleagues to go along with a new state tax deduction for road toll expenses. The party has also claimed that it will work towards removing the new toll plazas in Oslo.