Vedum emerges as premier candidate

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegians woke up Wednesday morning to news that the leader of the formerly small, protectionist and (some claim) populist Center Party is now in the running to be their next prime minister. Trygve Slagsvold Vedum refuses to discuss the possibility, but a new poll shows his party can now claim nearly as many voters as Labour and is gaining on the Conservatives.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum is detested by some and loved by others. He could, at least, characteristically grin from ear to ear after Center claimed 20.2 percent of the vote in a new public opinion poll. He’s shown here at a party meeting with Center’s motto: “We believe in all of Norway,” especially the country’s outlying areas that need economic support. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

The poll, conducted by research firm Norstat for newspaper Aftenposten and state broadcaster NRK, confirms a political earthquake that’s been rumbling for many months. Not since the late 1990s, when the Center Party led the fight against EU membership, has a poll shown so much voter support for Center: 20.2 percent, just one percentage point less than Labour, which landed at 21.2 percent.

It’s a far cry from the days of the last left-center government coalition, when Labour commanded three times more than both the Center and Socialist Left (SV) parties combined. Now Center, which has been steadily luring voters away from several other parties, is emerging as a powerful force at the expense of its former government partners.

Seizing on rural voter frustration
Commentators were quick to offer reasons for Center’s rise under Vedum, who still repels more internationally and free market-minded voters. The bald, cherubic Vedum with a ready laugh is downright folksey, and he’s spent lots of time traveling around the country and meeting with people in areas far from the power center in Oslo. The Center Party has always championed the interests of farmers and others living in outlying districts, making Norway’s so-called “district politics” their most important issue. Vedum has seized on their frustration and feelings of not being heard, especially regarding controversial county and municipal mergers and the need for job creation.

The Center Party has especially grown in Finnmark and other portions of Northern Norway, where voters are still trying to undo the forced merger of Finnmark and Troms counties. It’s won away traditional support for Labour in the area and has also been winning against the right-wing Progress Party’s efforts in Northern Norway, too. Progress was once three times as big as Center and chided Center’s “old-fashioned” efforts to maintain high farm subsidies and tariff protection from food imports. Now Center is nearly twice as big as Progress, which dipped to just 11.6 percent of the vote in the new poll.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum is showing little if any loyalty to his former left-center government partners Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left party (white shirt) or Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre (far right). This photo is from a party leader debate in 2016. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Center has also been viewed as having the clearest voice in opposition in Parliament. All the parties came together and backed the Conservatives-led government when the Corona crisis began, but now the bickering has resumed and Center is also winning new support among “ordinary folks” in urban areas as well. Commentator Frithjof Jacobsen in newspaper Dagens Næringsiv (DN) has called Vedum “a political machine” who quickly latched on to Labour’s popular Member of Parliament from Oslo, Jan Bøhler, when Bøhler was replaced as a certain MP candidate on Labour’s Oslo list. Now Bøhler is drumming up voters for the Center Party in Oslo’s working class neighbourhoods and likely to remain in Parliament.

Neither Vedum nor his Center Party colleagues show any signs of loyalty to their former government partners, Labour and SV. Vedum has even stated publicly that he’d prefer forming a new government coaliton without SV, claiming they’re too much odds over policy on oil, wind energy, defense, taxes and even abortion. Center has far more conservative views than SV, preferring, for example, to maintain some restrictions on abortion after the first trimester, opposing reinstatement of inheritance tax, favouring NATO membership and supporting the oil industry.

Not always in line with the majority
There are areas, however, where the Center Party seems out of step with popular opinion. It continues to criticize Norway’s trade and policy agreement with the EU that’s supported by nearly 70 percent of all Norwegians, according to a new poll. The Center Party also firmly supports hunting wolves and other predators that many nature-loving Norwegians want to protect. Center has also been a firm backer of the oil industry at a time of widespread climate concerns and when one of its own former oil ministers is caught in controversy and the future of Arctic exploration is up before the Supreme Court.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, remain Norway’s largest party in the new poll, with 25.2 percent of the vote. Their problem, however, is the voters’ flight from their two government partners, the Christian Democrats and Liberals. Both landed at just 2.2- and 2.7 percent of the vote respectively. That’s well below the 4 percent needed for full representation in Parliament and leaves the Conservatives without any helpful political partners, especially since Progress left the coalition and now won’t support the conservative government’s state budget proposal. Negotiations remained utterly stuck as of early this week.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, however, remains voters’ top choice as prime minister. Fully 37 percent of those polled still want her as Norway’s leader, while NRK reported that only 9 percent favour Vedum. He remained undaunted and non-committal Wednesday morning about his chances to take over next fall: “The most important thing,” he told NRK, is what we want to do with the country, and develop all parts of it.” He’ll face tough opposition from climate and environmental activists, though, and a lot can happen between now and the next national election in September 2021.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund