NEWS ANALYSIS: Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, often branded as a populist leader of his rural-oriented Center Party, finally confirmed his ambitions to be Norway’s new prime minister over the weekend. That still may be a long shot, but public opinion polls now also confirm that the left-center side of Norwegian politics has far more support than the current Conservatives-led government.
As the annual national meetings of Norwegian political parties drew to a close, the latest polls strongly indicate that Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition will lose the upcoming parliamentary election in September. She remains the voters’ choice for prime minister, scoring highest at 35 percent in a recent study by research firm Poll of Polls. Her Conservative Party, however, now lags Labour, whose leader Jonas Gahr Store has been her chief rival for the past eight years.
Solberg’s biggest problem is the lack of public support for her government partners, the Christian Democrats and Liberals, neither of which currently has enough support (4 percent or more of the vote) for full representation in Parliament. Even her own former government partner, the Progress Party, only commands 10.7 percent in the most recent poll conducted by research firm Norstat for newspaper Aftenposten and state broadcaster NRK. It all means her current three-party coalition now only holds 27.3 percent of the vote, with her Conservatives claiming the vast majority at 21.2 percent.
Vedum’s once-small Center Party, meanwhile, has been attracting voters from most all the parties in Parliament, on both the right and the left. Never before, reports newspaper Dagsavisen, has the farmer-friendly and protectionist Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp)‘s future looked brighter, as Vedum works hard to appeal to disillusioned Norwegians by promising decentralization and more government services and support closer to where people live, not least in remote areas of the country. Long ridiculed as old-fashioned, provincial and resisting change, Center now seems to appeal to more nationally based interests.
As Vedum digitally gathered his flock late last week, Center could claim fully 17 percent of the vote, according to the Norstat poll. That compares to its election result of 5.5 percent in 2013, when the left-center side lost to Solberg’s conservative coalition, and 10.3 percent in the last election in 2017. At that point, Solberg won re-election and held on to her prime minister’s post with 25 percent of the vote.
Now her chances aren’t nearly as good. Center and Labour alone hold just over 41 percent of the vote in the latest poll and the trend that began to emerge last last year appears firm: Even though Solberg and her coalition have generally won praise for getting Norway through the Corona crisis, voters now think it’s time for a change.
Defections to Center
The main question is why so many Norwegian voters are defecting from both the right and the left to Vedum’s party. It traditionally is most concerned with:
***propping up rural areas at the expense of urban centers,
***offering protection and lots of financial support to farmers that in turn nurture Norway’s notoriously high food prices,
***supporting the now-controversial oil industry and
***firmly opposing membership in the EU. Center has also long been critical of Norway’s trade deal with the EU, which Labour, the Conservatives, national labour organizations and the business lobby firmly support.
The party evolved, meanwhile, from the former Farmers’ Party (Bondepartiet), which was linked to facism in the 1930s, later moderated its views and changed its name in 1959.
Now it seems to be appealing to voters on all sides who’ve been unhappy with the results of the bigger “steering parties'” forced county- and municipal mergers and Solberg’s drive for centralization and consolidation of everything from farms to hospitals and the police. Center has won lots of voters in the northernmost regions of Troms and Finnmark, which were forced into a country merger that the vast majority opposed. Center Party voters also want lots of road improvements and transport projects in general, while climate and environmental issues are less important. Center voters tend to have less higher education than those in Labour and the Conservatives, and are represented by far more older men than younger, more diverse age groups.
Vedum has been trying hard, though, to win more voters in Oslo, for example, where the party still only has support from around 3 percent of the voters. Center only has 5.9 percent of its voters in Oslo, compared to nearly 80 percent from small towns and outlying areas. Vedum has thus zeroed in on another controversial reorganization and merger of hospitals that would ultimately shut down Norway’s largest, the sprawling Oslo University Hospital at Ullevål, and redevelop it as a residential community. Vedum also succeeded in luring veteran Labour politician Jan Bøhler over to Center, to potentially also win over his voters in east-side neighbourhoods who often feel neglected by both local and state politicians.
Targeting differences among people
Vedum also makes a point of pitting a so-called “elite” in Norway against “ordinary folks,” much like the right-wing Progress Party that once was Center’s opposite. Now both Center and Progress have been branded as “polarizing and nationalistic” as the two are both going after disenchanted voters, with Center doing much better and also luring many former Progress voters. Labour and the Conservatives are also mounting, and even quarreling over, new appeals to the so-called “ordinary” voters.
Aftenposten reported during the weekend that there’s now a 95 percent chance that the left-center side will win a majority in Parliament in September, with Vedum publicly stating that he hopes Center and Labour can form a new government alone. He doesn’t want to revive the same left-center coalition that ruled from 2005 to 2013 and also included the Socialist Left Party (SV), but SV (firmly anti-oil and much more urbane) has also been doing well and now holds 7.3 percent of the vote. That’s likely to be needed in order for the left-center to have a majority in Parliament, and Labour’s prime minister candidate Støre wants to include SV. Vedum prefers to seek a majority with various parties on an issue-by-issue basis.
It’s ultimately all up to the voters as the election campaign gets underway in earnest this summer. Solberg isn’t giving up yet but has shown signs of government fatigue, as have some of her other ministers, after eight years in office. She would, at any rate, be a powerful and even popular leader of the opposition in Parliament.