Corona crisis unity dissolves into chaos

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NEWS ANALYSIS: National crises often bring people and political rivals together. Less than four months after uniting during the Corona crisis, however, the gloves came off and political chaos descended on Parliament before it recessed for the summer holidays.

There’s an old saying that politics can make for strange bedfellows. That was the case when Labour Party Leader Jonas Gahr Støre and Socialist Left leader Audun Lysbakken (far left) found themselves on the same side of the biotech reform issue as Siv Jensen (center), leader of the conservative Progress Party. PHOTO: Stortinget

Longstanding party alliances also seemed to shatter in the process, with Labour even teaming up with its arch rival Progress Party on some key issues. Photos of Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre and Socialist Left (SV) leader Audun Lysbakken celebrating with Progress leader Siv Jensen outside Parliament, after they pushed through reform of biotechnology law, were unusual indeed.

Former allies, meanwhile, are quarreling, especially as the unpredictable Progress Party tries to jockey for position after withdrawing from Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives-led coalition in January. Progress is now frequently criticizing the government it was part of for six years, lashing out most recently over Solberg’s reluctance to offer tax relief for the oil industry.

The right-wing Progress has even been part of what some political commentators called a new “Gang of Four,” latching on to members of the former left-center coalition government parties Labour, SV and the Center Party (Sp). They collectively forced through enhancements, for example, to the Conservative government’s crisis packages to aid businesses and individuals. Progress also joined (or is trying to steal the voters of) another former rival, the protectionist Center Party, to offer all but unconditional support to the oil business.

Setting the tone for the election campaign
Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized last week that the tone is thus now set for the long political campaign leading up to next year’s Parliamentary election in September. The unity on Corona issues in March and early April has also fallen apart, with Progress leader Jensen criticizing her former partner Solberg’s ongoing Corona containment measures as “inconsistent and confusing.” Surprisingly enough, the free-market oriented Progress called for even more restrictive measures and more crowd control as Norway gradually began opening up.

The sense of common pupose and collective effort (called dugnad in Norwegian) is over, declared Frithjof Jacobsen, political commentator in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “Now Norwegian politics resembles an unruly annual meeting of a homeowners’ association,” Jacobsen wrote in DN recently. With the Corona crisis coming under control, he added, renewed conflict levels “indicate that we face a new and unpredictable political landscape.”

The right-wing Progress Party’s Sylvi Listhaug (third from right) situated herself right in the middle of the left-wing parties in Parliament during one of many gatherings that challenged the Conservatives-led government. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

It’s manifested in Progress’ efforts to lure Center- and Labour Party voters over it its side, while Solberg’s Conservatives keep trying to lure Progress back into the non-socialist fold. Meanwhile Labour and Center, which were officially allied in government from 2005 to 2013, disagree on several important issues involving climate and Norway’s relations with the EU.

There’s no question the former left-center alliance (Labour, Center and SV) is now fragile to the point of falling apart. Center was not out celebrating the biotech reforms, while SV would have nothing to do with tax relief for oil. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum won’t even talk about forming a new coalition with Labour and SV, saying he prefers to govern only with Labour.

No majority to be found
Public opinion polls, meanwhile, show no clear majority at present. While the Conservatives had been gaining the most this spring based on support for the Solberg Government’s Corona strategy, they slipped in the recent June barometer. Both the Conservatives and Labour hold around 25 percent of the vote, followed by Center at 14 and Progress at just 10 percent. Labour and Center couldn’t govern alone if that was an election result, nor could the Conservaties and Progress, so forming a government coalition will once again be up to the performances of all the smaller parties. SV has the most clout at present (7 percent), with the increasingly popular Greens demanding attention. They held 5.6 percent of the vote in the latest poll, much more than the two non-socialist government parties, Venstre and the Christian Democrats, both at less than 4 percent. The far-left Reds will be a factor, with their 4.3 percent.

Prime Minister candidate Jonas Gahr Støre held his Labour Party’s pre-summer appeal at a trendy entertainment spot in Oslo, but hasn’t managed to drum up voter support. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

There’s lots of division within the parties as well, as they argue internally over upcoming party platforms. Labour’s Støre seems caught in never-ending conflicts over the party’s support for industry and oil while also trying to address climate and environmental concerns. It poses a constant dilemma and Støre can’t seem to make up his mind other than repeating that he’s not keen to share government power with the Greens or the Reds. Many others in Labour think the party must cooperate with both.

There’s a big climate battle going on within Center, which is also pro-oil and represents farmers whose livestock generate lots of carbon emissions, too. Center won’t deal with the Greens either, while several former Center leaders claim more credible climate-friendly policy is essential for winning voter support next year. Either way, the Greens are shaping up as the joker in next year’s election, but they’re playing hard to get: “While the other parties try to find out how important they think climate issues are, we’ll be working to become as large as possible,” said Greens leader Une Bastholm at its pre-summer press conference last week. She won’t commit to any alliance yet.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s own Conservative Party remains unified and she’s keen to govern for four more years, if she can find a political base amidst the current chaos. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Progress suddenly seems to face the most internal dissent at present, with Jensen even at odds with her own local Oslo chapter. She’s long been viewed as among the more moderate and rational leaders within Progress, as compared to its more far-right and populist factions. One of the self-declared nationalists in the Oslo chapter even raised doubts this week over whether Jensen, who took Progress both in and out of government for the first time, would be renominated to lead the chapter’s list of candidates for seats in Parliament heading into next year’s election. Jensen responded quickly and sharply, calling his move “unacceptable” and his faction “a little group in Oslo who choose to try to overlook all the measures and strategies the rest of the party has chosen.” She prevailed in the end, and newspaper Aftenposten reported on Friday that the chapter’s board would maintain its practice of placing her, as party leader, first on its list of MP candidates.

There’s no question Progress has had its share of scandals, internal conflicts and, most recently, poor showings in the polls. Solberg and her Conservatives, however, still dream about getting Progress back in her non-socialist fold and governing for a third term in a row. Even if Solberg loses her non-socialist majority in Parliament next fall, she’s ready to continue serving as prime minister and doesn’t think that’s unrealistic.

“We have sat with a broad non-socialist constellation for eight years,” Solberg said at her own gathering to assess the first half of this year before the summer recess. “We can stand for re-election on that.” While her coalition parties sag in the polls, she personally keeps winning over Labour’s Støre as Norway’s prime minister candidate.

One of her current government partners, the Liberals, didn’t bother to hold a mid-year meeting with the press. While Labour invited reporters to the allegedly cool, grafitti-covered nightclub Blå in Oslo’s trendy Grünerløkka district, the Christian Democrats offered conversations over pastries and Center celebrated its 100th anniversary, the Liberals avoided a session likely to be full of tough questions. The party is currently stuck in a leadership struggle, has been performing miserably in the polls but recently agreed to support membership in the EU. It’s held the powerful swing vote in Parliament before, but clearly has enough on its plate dealing with the chaos within its own ranks.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund