NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s triumphant Greens Party (MDG) is suddenly posing a huge new challenge to the country’s two largest parties that have steered Norwegian government for years. As the chastened leaders of Labour and the Conservatives digest their heavy losses in this week’s local elections, both are being advised to take voters’ frustrations and climate concerns more seriously, possibly rein in Norway’s oil industry and even learn to cooperate with the Greens.
There’s no question that the Greens (Miljøpartiet De Grønne, MDG) have become a force to be reckoned with in Norwegian politics, at least at the local level. Now they have bigger national ambitions, telling newspaper Klassekampen even before Monday’s victorious election results rolled in that they’re aiming for 10 percent of the national vote at the next parliamentary election in 2021. They’re also open to becoming part of a government coalition, even though they’ve always claimed they’re independent and not part of any permanent party bloc.
“If we can create genuine change (in climate and environmental policy) by becoming part of a government, we’ll do so,” the Greens’ national spokesman Arild Hermstad told Klassekampen. “Our goal is that Norway’s next (national) government will rank the fight for climate and environment and our children’s future as its main project. That won’t happen without a strong MDG.”
On Monday night, MDGs’ party faithful were literally thrilled to tears over their election success. Not only did they win big in the nation’s capital and other cities, they did well in many outlying areas as well, like Vardø in Norway’s far north. They grabbed 24.45 percent of the vote in Norway’s only municipality with a true Arctic climate, and their local leader looked likely to take over as mayor. Vardø’s Arctic status is threatened by climate change, but state broadcaster NRK reported that the Greens/MDG in Vardø also think the important local issues include maintaining the local fishing fleet and opposing fish farming.
Given the Greens’ double-digit voter support in many metropolitan communities around Norway as well, Prime Minister Erna Solberg can no longer ignore them. Their voter support doubled in Oslo and jumped in Norway’s other biggest cities as well, preventing Solberg’s Conservative troops from retaining or returning to power. The Greens not only secured left-green majorities in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø and Stavanger, they also gained so much support that they can now claim a much larger presence in city governments and on city councils. The balance of power has shifted in their favour at the municipal and county levels.
That’s not good news for Solberg, who stayed away from the latest and noisiest school strike for the climate and has recently repeated her support for ongoing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. She also denied that election results amounted to a huge district uproar against her government over its centralization efforts and unpopular county and municipal mergers, even though all four government parties suffered big election losses. Two of them (the small Liberal and Christian Democrat parties) promote green policies and could likely get along with the Greens/MDG, but haven’t been able to make a big enough difference in Solberg’s government.
The Greens’ popularity and newfound strength also poses a huge dilemma for Norway’s Labour Party and its ambitions of grabbing government power away from Solberg in 2021. Like the Conservatives, Labour has also long supported Norway’s oil and gas industry along with all other industry in Norway, since job creation and preservation remain their most important issues. Both the Conservatives and Labour want to not only keep allowing exploration for even more oil and gas but also support incentives that leave the Norwegian state taking most of the financial risk if oil isn’t found.
The Greens point out, as does the Socialist Left party (SV) that also did well at the polls on Monday, that the zeal of the biggest parties (including the resurgent Center Party) to keep the oil flowing is simply not compatible with Norway’s need to cut carbon emissions. Now many voters seem to agree, giving both Solberg and her beleaguered counterpart at Labour, Jonas Gahr Støre, two years to finally make the much-hyped “green shift” away from economic reliance on oil and gas materialize.
Labour suffered its worst local elections ever over other issues as well, and ended up utterly reliant on the Greens and other left-leaning parties to form governments in several cities. It also lost out to its own former government partner, the rural-oriented Center Party, in many other cities like Verdal in Trøndelag, where Labour’s outgoing mayor told reporters he didn’t think Labour’s leadership had understood the problems centralization of state services create.
Others complained that Labour hasn’t opposed Solberg’s government strongly enough and entered into too many compromises on such issues as police reform, forced county mergers, municipal consolidation and pending shutdowns or mergers of local hospitals and universities. As commentator Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen wrote in late August when polls showed Labour in trouble again, Støre and his party should have enjoyed “dreamy days” and gained from all the trouble within Solberg’s government. They didn’t.
Taking local cooperation national
Labour now seems more likely than the Conservatives to cooperate with the Greens, after four years of cooperation in Oslo’s city government and now four more years ahead. Labour MP Espen Barth Eide, a former defense- and foreign minister in the last Labour government, thinks MDG is emerging as a “green steering party” that Labour could get used to working with on a national level as well.
“It’s a discussion we need to have,” Eide, who now serves as Labour’s energy policy spokesperson, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) just before the election. “Our experience from Oslo is positive.” Eide doesn’t think MDG is just a protest party any longer: “With power comes the realities of power.” He thinks Labour, which lost the most votes in this week’s local elections, has sagged in both the polls and election results because it didn’t respond to the public’s rising climate commitment.
“We should be the most credible climate party in 2021, but we shouldn’t be just like MDG, SV or the Liberals, and rather take more overall responsibility,” Eide said. He wants to see more financial commitment to large-scale carbon capture and storage and quicker moves towards a greener economy.
“The point is that the demand (for oil and gas) will go down and we need to have new legs to stand on well in advance,” Eide told DN. He has also voiced support for proposals to cut back on oil companies’ incentives to drill for more oil and gas, but was quickly overruled by party leader Støre and labour union leaders keen to keep the oil industry active and hiring.
Eide’s musings about cooperation with MDG were also met with skepticism from Labour’s deputy leader Hadia Tajik and outrage from Jørn Eggum, boss of the labour union federation Fellesforbundet, who dismissed Eide as “just an MP from Oslo … who’s nothing.” Støre stayed mostly silent, not wanting to speculate on political constellations two years from now. He has told state broadcaster NRK and other media, however, that Labour’s losses this week are “a powerful warning from the voters that we have a job to do.” He seemed especially keen to win back Northern Norway, where the Center Party ended up the big winner and posted their best local election results ever.
Hermstad of the Greens, meanwhile, appreciated Eide’s remarks and called Eggum’s outburst “predictable and sad.” He thinks Eide’s views will gain more support, as the public in general wakes up to what the Greens consistently call a “climate crisis.”
Time to ‘think new’
Many political commentators in Norway, meanwhile, claim both Labour and the Conservatives need to wake up as well. They have “an unsolved environmental problem,” wrote DN commentator Kjetil B. Alstadheim on Wednesday. He thinks the Conservatives should stop branding the Greens as socialists “and ‘think new’ regarding their strategy towards MDG. Shall they continue to push away a party that could be useful?”
Alstadheim even sees MDG replacing the Progress Party (which also suffered heavy election losses) in Solberg’s coalition, ushering in cooperation among the Conservatives, MDG, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. On the left side of national politics, Labour may ultimately need to choose between MDG and its old partner, the Center Party: Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum flatly told DN on Wednesday that it won’t sit in a government with the Greens. Center has held the post of oil minister in former Labour-led governments, has had a deputy leader who went into the oil business and their views on farming and the meat industry are also too far apart. Vedum and Støre also landed in some bitter conflicts during the recent campaign over district politics and centralization.
The Greens are mostly coy after their election triumph, not wanting to speculate much either on what lies ahead in terms of national power. Even though their charismatic if controversial Lan Marie Nguyen Berg claimed Monday’s voting had radically changed Norwegian politics, one Greens leader seemed to waffle during NRK’s radio talk show Politisk kvarter on Wednesday on whether MDG will maintain its “ultimatum” that opposes any further exploration for oil and gas. MDG will instead discuss “a new party program” ahead of the 2021 election as it also gets down to the business of cooperating in the governance of cities and towns around the country.