Progress plagues former partners

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Norway’s top politicians headed into the long Ascension Day weekend amidst rising political pandemonium in Parliament. It’s mostly pegged to the right-wing Progress Party, which is repeatedly siding with the left-center opposition on key issues and thus challenging its former partners in the Conservatives-led minority government.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (front row center) initially enjoyed support and solidarity from other parties in Parliament, as her Conservative government tackled the Corona virus crisis. Now the other parties are ganging up against her, especially her former government partner, the Progress Party. PHOTO: Stortinget

The Corona gloves clearly are off. After several weeks of solidarity during the first phase of the Corona-virus crisis in March, most all of the opposition parties in Parliament have since been determined to position themselves. They’ve  tinkered with the government’s crisis packages, objected to revised state budget proposals and even changed previously held stands on issues to form highly unconventional political alliances aimed at defeating government proposals.

Leading the uproar is the conservative Progress Party, which withdrew from Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition in January and has been complaining about its own former government ever since. Political analysts believe Progress’ apparent need to cause trouble for Solberg, instead of cooperating with her, is rooted in a desire to grab attention and be critical rather than cooperative.

Keen to steal Solberg’s support
The main problem for all the parties in Parliament is that Solberg’s Conservatives have been enjoying strong voter support, often at their expense. The Conservatives have climbed so high in public opinion polls that they now rank as the largest party in the country, ahead of Labour. Solberg’s party claimed 28.3 percent of the vote in the latest May poll conducted by research firm Opinion for a group of left-leaning media including newspaper Dagsavisen and news services FriFagbevegelse and ANB.

Progress, by comparison, fell another two points to a lowly 9.6 of the vote, its worst showing in months. Progress has lost a third of its voters since February, “first and foremost because it’s fallen into the shadow of the Conservatives, which is winning on the crisis we’re stuck in now,” election researcher Johannes Bergh told FriFagbevegelse.

Bergh noted that the Conservatives “have shown good leadership and that’s serving them well.” Support for the government itself remains held back, however, by poor showings on the parts of the Conservatives’ two remaining junior partners, the Liberals and Christian Democrats. They only won support from 2.7- and 3.6 percent of the voters respectively in the latest poll. That doesn’t bode well for Solberg’s re-election chances next year, but she’s still much more popular than Labour’s prime minister candidate Jonas Gahr Støre, whose Center Party ally also fell in the polls, to 12 percent. Other parties showed only small gains.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (right) and former Finance Minister Siv Jensen worked together in government for six years, until Jensen’s Progress Party withdrew after poor poll results in January. Now Progress’ polls are worse, prompting Progress to increasingly side with the opposition in Parliament. They’re shown here in 2018, announcing how another justice minister from Progress had to be replaced. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Progress scored the worst of all, and Bergh thinks that’s why it’s being especially cranky at present. “When the Conservatives mobilize, they win voters away from Progress,” he said. Progress thus needs to fend them off.

Others, like political commentator Kjell Werner, think Progress is panicking, to the point where they’d rather ally themselves with long-time enemies like the Center Party, Labour and even the Socialist Left (SV), or win away their voters. “Life outside the government has been much different than Progress folks had thought it would be,” Werner wrote last week. Instead of winning back voters by being free to criticize the government, it’s lost them.

There’s no question that Progress politicians like Sylvi Listhaug are thus suddenly going after rural voters and stressing how “the whole country” needs to benefit from job creation and a stronger economy. She has also tried to present Progress and herself as the oil industry’s best friends, advocating tax relief and support for the industry to protect jobs. Listhaug and Progress politicians held the Oil Minister’s post while in government with the Conservatives from 2013 until January 2020 and none has ever been known for worrying much about the climate.

Listhaug admitted that the recent polls haven’t been good enough, but suggested the Conservatives are merely riding a wave of support in a crisis situation. Others have noted that the Conservatives’ Corona crisis measures don’t reflect the party’s own policies either, as Solberg raids the Oil Fund to dole out billions of kroner to crisis-hit businesses and thousands of laid-off workers. “The party has become bigger than Labour because they’ve set their own program aside until the crisis is over,” editorialized Dagsavisen on Tuesday.

Progress resorts to delivering defeats
Meanwhile Progress needs to build itself up in opposition, and is delivering one defeat after another to Solberg’s government. Their new alliances with left-center parties hit new peaks this week when they provided the majority needed to reject the government’s new long-term defense plan, and reversed their position on court reform. The reform proposal had even been initiated by Progress’ own justice minister in 2017, the arch-conservative Per-Willy Amundsen. At that time he said there “was a need to examine how the courts should be organized.” This week he claimed there were no signs that reform was needed after all. That prompted newspaper Aftenposten to question whether Amundsen had only been joking when he set up a commission aimed at launching reform.

Prime Minister Solberg has reason to be feeling more alone these days. She’s maintained her characteristic calm while under fire, though, as she hangs on to power. PHOTO: Stortinget

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen has also threated to topple Solberg’s government, most vocally over the so-called “ice-edge” that will limit how far north oil companies can drill (Progress wants as much drilling as it can get). Jensen is also furious over any proposal to allow more asylum seekers or UN-certified refugees into Norway would likely vote with Labour and the Center parties if they vote against it. Progress may succeed in pressuring the government into going along with more tax relief for the oil industry but Solberg has been bold enough to back away from Progress’ push (while still in government) to transfer responsibility for nursing homes from local governments to the state, and to limit local governments’ ability to impose property tax. Solberg sees that local governments need to raise more revenues to offset Corona costs.

Some commentators welcome the end of a truce over initial Corona response. Arne Strand, writing in Dagsavisen, noted that the opposition parties’ job is to oppose, adding that “democracy can be strangled by too much agreement.” He also thinks Solberg needs to drop any hopes of relying on Progress to get measures through Parliament. Progress, like most parties, will most likely only do what it thinks is in its best interests.

Solberg, meanwhile, has remained characteristically calm amidst all the noise from and challenges posed by her former government partner. She may feel secure enough that Progress under Siv Jensen won’t ultimately allow Labour to take over government power, but it has happened before. Jensen’s predecessor Carl I Hagen famously allowed an earlier Conservative government to fall in 1986 over a conflict involving an increase in fuel tax at the time. That ushered in Gro Harlem Brundtland’s Labour Party, which ended up holding power well into the 1990s.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund