His Labour Party is falling in the polls and his personal popularity is low. Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre has nonetheless confirmed that he stands ready to take over as Norway’s prime minister if Erna Solberg’s government coalition crashes because of disagreement over road tolls.
Labour is always prepared to assume government responsibility if it’s needed, Støre told news bureau NTB. “That’s firm,” Støre said during a campaign stop on Tuesday in Norway’s northern city of Mo i Rana.
He said he didn’t dare predict whether the serious conflict over bompenger (road tolls) will actually topple the current government coalition led by her Conservatives and including the Progress, Christian Democrats and Liberal parties. Støre didn’t hesitate, however, to offer his opinion on the conflict.
“It’s an expression of a government that can’t manage to land internal processes, where the parties are playing against each other and where the public is forced to follow it based on selective leaks from the coalition,” Støre told NTB. “That’s a poor starting point for a democratic debate on important issues during an election campaign.”
Patience running thin
Solberg, known for remaining calm in a crisis, has overcome conflicts before. She has not only held her unlikely coalition together for six years but has also expanded it twice. She’s reportedly losing patience now, however, with the third party to join her coalition last year.
The small Liberal Party, which currently holds just 2 percent of voter support in the latest polls itself, is refusing to go along with the other three parties’ agreement to reduce the need for local governments to impose road tolls by forking over more state funding. The Liberals support road tolls as a means of cutting climate emissions, and don’t want their already-sketchy record on important climate issues to be further damaged.
If either the Liberals or the Progress Party, which also has been diving in the polls, feel compelled to withdraw from Solberg’s coalition, it will have such a minority in Parliament that it could fall. Most commentators think Solberg will ride out the road toll crisis as well, but the situation is widely viewed as both “highly uncertain” and “dramatic.”
Voters’ support for Støre also thin
Støre criticized Solberg for letting the road toll conflict overshadow the upcoming local elections in Noway, even though bompenger (road tolls) are a huge issue not least at the local level. “There are thousands of candidates up for election,” Støre noted, “and they’re all being repressed by an internal game among four parties that can’t manage to pull together.” He also accused Solberg of poor leadership.
Støre’s own leadership, however, has been a major issue as well. Labour has been losing voter support all over the country, even in areas where Labour has been the dominant party for years. New polls this week show that Labour has fallen dramatically in Finnmark, Troms and Nordland, once a bastion of Labour support. There’s also been lots of grumbling among party faithful that Støre, who comes from a wealthy family, simply doesn’t represent workers and labour union members in the way earlier Labour leaders and social democrats have.
Kjetil B Alstadheim, the award-winning politial commentator for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), wrote this week that both of Norway’s largest parties that traditionally have steered the country seem to have lost their steering. Even though Støre was viewed as the “winner” of last week’s first major party leader debate, Alstadheim called Støre’s and Labour’s campaign “strange” because how it’s latched onto issues like free meals for children in Norway’s elementary schools and getting rid of private providers of social services like child- and elder care. Both are old proposals brought up earlier by the Socialist Left and Reds parties that failed to win public support.
Støre has also recently annoyed the Center Party on several issues lately, thereby potentially alienating one of Labour’s most important partners in any left-center coalition. DN has also revealed that Labour’s own campaign strategy has plotted against Center in outlying areas. Støre conceded he could understand that Center Party leaders reacted negatively to that.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s current troubles are clearly a welcome chance for Støre to suddenly be on the offensive, after several years of having to defend his beleaguered party that’s been caught up in scandals, bitter internal conflicts of their own, and voter flight. Taking over as prime minister, however, would surely disrupt the local election campaign as well while sending Norway in a new and much less conservative direction.