Political chaos and uncertainty have replaced what seemed to have been clear victories for several government coalitions in cities all over Norway, not least in Oslo. Tough deal-making and political horse-trading can alter the initially perceived results of last week’s local election, as voters’ angry green tidal wave recedes.
Negotiations for political control of Norwegian municipalities are well underway from north to south, and don’t have to be finalized until late October. It remains highly unclear whether voters will be satisfied with the results. They’re left to watch from the sidelines as the political parties now jockey for power and position based on their election results.
The strong voter turnout that was fueled by uproar in the districts and climate issues in the cities may lead to new unexpected results. Voters outside the big cities were protesting centralization, reforms and looming losses of state services at the local level, as small hospitals, police stations and even the campuses of some universities that are forced to close. The district-friendly Center Party was best at exploiting the anger and scored the biggest victories overall, even though it didn’t offer many concrete solutions. It now will use its well-honed horse-trading tactics to its advantage as small city- and county governments take shape.
In cities from Tromsø in the north to Stavanger, Bergen and Oslo in the south, where Center isn’t strong, transport issues and not least road tolls overshadowed other major issues such as property tax, the high price of housing, elder care and schools. In Oslo there’s also a huge debate over whether to allow rezoning of property earmarked for a new hospital to replace Ullevål, which the state wants to shut down and eventually sell its prime location for residential and commercial use.
Stunned in Stavanger, bullied in Bergen
Results of the negotiations going on now to form new city governments will have a direct effect on how such issues are addressed. Preliminary political maneuvers are already surprising and angering voters anew, for example when the anti-road toll party FNB suddenly teamed up in Stavanger with its arch-enemy the Greens (MDG), which “loves” road tolls. FNB opted to join negotiations for a large and potentially unwieldy left-wing coalition in Stavanger that would also include Labour, the Socialist Left (SV), the Reds and the Center Party. They all called it a “technical” cooperation to end the Conservatives’ 24-year hold on city government power in Norway’s oil capital.
FNB’s local leader Frode Myrhol didn’t seem to understand why voters who cast their ballots for FNB in order to get rid of or at least reduce road tolls felt betrayed, and reacted with anger and dismay. “We have had fruitful conversations,” Myrhold told news bureau NTB right after the election, adding that it would be “exciting” to see whether such a large coalition could be formed.
In Bergen, the voter anger was even higher after the left-wing, pro-road-toll parties all but ganged up against FNB, which scored the biggest election victory of them all. They attempted to freeze out FNB, treatening to leave it with a hollow victory indeed. As negotiations proceeded, local newspaper Bergens Tidende advised voters to “fasten your seatbelts, this is total chaos.”
Opportunism in Oslo
The green winds coming in from the left last week, as newspaper Dagbladet put it, may shift as the power grabs continue. In Oslo, where the Labour-led coalition that includes the Greens and SV seemed assured of continuing, voters were surprised to hear on state broadcaster NRK Wednesday morning that the Conservatives couldn’t be ruled out as leader of a new right-green coalition that could oust the incumbent left-green.
The Greens (MDG) pride themselves on being independent of any party blocs. They suddenly wield lots of power in Oslo after winning 15.2 percent of the vote last week. That makes them the third-largest party and much stronger at a time when Labour is much weaker. Labour logged its worst election results in years and ended with just 20.1 percent of the vote in Oslo, meaning that Labour will have to bow to more of the Greens demands if it wants to retain city government leadership: Greens leader Lan Marie Nguyen Berg has already made it clear that she wants more seats in government and may even seek control of powerful departments like finance and business.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, also fared poorly in the election but wound up with 25.4 percent of the vote, making it the biggest single party in Oslo. Now one of its longtime partners at both the local and state level has approached the independent Greens with a bid for cooperation. On Friday, newspaper Dagsavisen reported that the Liberals (a non-socialist centrist party that cooperates with the Conservatives despite a name that suggests otherwise) have offered to replace the far-left Reds as the Green’s support party. The Reds won 7.2 percent of the vote while the Liberals won 5.8 percent, but that can be all that’s needed to secure a majority on either side.
It remains unclear whether the Liberals will actually shift sides, from right to left, or simply remain on the right but with centrist power to shift in accordance with issues. The Conservatives’ leader in Oslo who rivals Raymond Johansen as a potential city government leader, Eirik Lae Solberg, seems geared to take that a step farther and lead a new right-center coalition including the Liberals, the Greens, the Christian Democrats and even Center. It would exclude the conservative Progress Party, reported NRK, since it’s at odds with the Greens, but Progress would like vote with the conservative coaliton on proposals to cut or eliminate property tax, or preserve private operators of city-financed services like day care and nursing homes.
The Reds were predictably outraged by the prospect of being replaced by the Liberals as support party for the Greens. The Greens’ new celebrity member Erik Solheim, a former SV leader and government minister who’s moved to the right himself, told Dagsavisen on Wednesday that he thinks the Liberals would be a much better partner for the Greens that the Reds: “The Liberals have a strong and long tradition as an environmentally oriented party.” Solheim, who was forced to resign as the UN’s environmental boss over too much costly traveling, also criticized the Reds’ environmental and climate record.
“It’s perhaps difficult to follow the Reds’ policy from 30,000 feet, which is where Solheim has mostly been in business class the last few years,” retorted Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes. “I think many otherwise see a steadily less-red Erik Solheim who’s taking environmental policy to the right and making it more compatible with market forces.”
Labour’s incumbent city government leader in Oslo, Raymond Johansen seemed to downplaying all the drama and uncertainty over who will lead the Norwegian capital over the next four years. Johansen, ever keen to retain power himself, told Dagsavisen on Wednesday that the Greens had “cleared” its flirt with the Liberals with him. He further claimed the Greens’ decision to talk with the Liberals was merely a “natural response” to the Liberals’ repeated initiative taken through the media.”
Johansen sent so far as to deny there would be any real negotiations between the Greens and the Liberals. “It’s our three city government parties (Labour, the Greens and SV) that will negotiate.” He also added that “we have been in dialog with the Reds as a support party.”
Negotiations will pretty much proceed behind closed doors over the next few weeks, until all involved are forced to settle on actual coalitions.