NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s normally polite politicians were all but shrieking at one another during state broadcaster NRK’s nationally televised party leader debate Monday night. It got the campaign leading up to next month’s local elections off to an unusually noisy start, with road tolls and property tax still emerging as the most heated issues.
Sparks were flying as the country’s top politicians interrupted each other, pointed fingers and seemed to compete for being loudest. It all left NRK moderator Fredrik Solvang with a major challenge in retaining control, as temperatures rose on a chilly late summer night in Arendal.
It was the first time NRK held the major political debate, which has become a fixture at the annual Arendalsuka gathering on Norway’s southern coast, outdoors, but that didn’t cool tempers. With municipal and county elections looming on September 9, the party leaders had to face off on issues over which they have only indirect control from either Parliament or the state government level where they hold office. The debate tested Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative government coalition, which has suffered signs of wear and tear after six years in power.
“I think the debate showed that there’s a lot at stake for very many of the party leaders and the parties,” said Magnus Takvam, the ever-calm political commentator for NRK, when it was all over just before midnight. “To a certain degree, it all flared up a bit much.”
Road tolls haven’t rolled over
So what was most of the noise about? Solberg had hoped the past year’s public debate and complaints over road tolls (bompenger) would die down over the summer, but it has not, and set off some of the most heated exchanges of the night.
Even though road tolls are mostly set locally, they often are seen as having to supplement inadequate state funding for road improvements and, more recently, more climate-friendly transport. Local governments’ attempts to set up more toll plazas and charge higher tolls, however, have infuriated many residents in Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen and other population centers when the money paid by motorists is now also used to finance bike lanes and better bus or tram service.
The left side of the debate defended the tolls, which amount to a broader tax on transport. Une Bastholm of the Greens went so far as to call them “brilliant,” with Takvam pointing out that her loud and firm defense of them clearly showed how she and her party “can be absolutely unwilling to compromise” and haven’t needed to resort to coalition tactics like most of the others.
Road tolls have become standard in municipalities governed by both right- and left-wing coalitions, though, so all their political futures are at stake if they lose votes to the new road-toll protest parties that have sprung up solely to do away with them. Norway’s most conservative party in Parliament and state government, the Progress Party, is most vulnerable to losing voters to the anti-road toll parties: even though it has consistently opposed road tolls, it has been unable to curb them after six years in state government.
Both Prime Minister Solberg and Progress Party Siv Jensen hinted that they’re close to reaching a government compromise on road tolls that would keep their coalition together and support candidates from the government parties in local elections. It would most likely have to involve extra state funding for transport improvements, to reduce the need for locally raised funding through road tolls. Otherwise they’ll likely lose or fail to win back power in most of Norway’s biggest cities, and the state government could fall as well if Progress feels compelled to drop out of it.
Other major issues sparking fiery exchanges were over the government’s centralization efforts and its enforcement of the Parliament’s orders for municipal- and county mergers. Both that and reforms of police and hospital operations were made to cut bureaucracy and boost efficiency, but many local opponents claim or fear they’re losing locally based services. Solberg launched her Conservative Party’s election campaign over the weekend by demanding better alternatives from opposition parties like Labour. She and Jensen have complained that the opposition parties are quick to criticize, but slow to come up with viable solutions themselves.
Property tax also set off lots of noise Monday night. It’s up to the municipal governments whether they feel a need to impose it, or raise it afterwards, while the non-socialist government parties mostly oppose it.
Labour-led local governments have been most likely to impose property tax, which has sparked complaints all over the country and finally came to Oslo, for example, when Labour won enough votes in the 2015 election to form a left-wing coalition with SV and the Greens. Most all other Labour-led towns and cities already had property tax and NRK has recently been reporting how, when the state government capped tax rates at 5 percent of assessed value, they simply obtained higher property value assessments to continue to collect the same amount of money from local property owners.
Solberg and her government colleagues argued that Norway’s local governments have never had such solid budgets as they do now, thanks largely to higher funding allocations from the state budget and a strong national economy. Others retorted that property tax remains necessary to sustain funding of all the welfare serves the local governments are obliged to provide.
Climate issues are also important in Norway, but perhaps moreso at the national level than the local level, and among younger than older Norwegians. Efforts to impose more climate-friendly programs and measures will thus likely depend on whether young voters flock to the polls, when the municipal elections that also allow non-citizens to vote are held on September 9.