Tide turns in the election campaign

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Norway’s Center Party and its leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, long considered the “joker” in next month’s parliamentary election, have suddenly slumped in public opinion polls. Center’s loss of voters just in the past few days is now so large that the tide seems to be turning at the height of the election campaign.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum turned angry, even hostile, when challenged during the first party leader debate of the campaign season earlier this month. His customary laugh and smile were lacking this week, too. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

After riding high for months with as much as 21 percent of the vote, Center’s self-confident leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum was facing a new reality this week. An average of all August polls taken through the end of last week now show Center with 15.7 percent of the vote.

Then came a new poll conducted for newspaper VG late last week that showed Center with just 11.3 percent of the vote. Then another, showing Vedum’s party, known for putting rural interests ahead of urban, with just under 11 percent. It’s a huge decline for Center that also seems to have benefited Center’s potential government partner, Labour. It’s just as suddenly flying higher with more than 25 percent of the vote.

Vedum predictably tried to talk down all the buzz and front-page stories about his apparent fall from voters’ grace. He points out that even 10- or 11 percent of the vote is still much higher than the 6.2 percent that won the party re-election into a left-center government coalition back in 2009. It’s also much higher than the 5.5 percent it had in 2013, when the same coalition lost.

Vedum also points to election results in 2017, when Center ended with 10.3 percent. “We still have a huge opportunity here, because we’re running higher than in the last parliamentary election,” Vedum told state broadcaster NRK while out on the campaign trail and presenting a new book on Monday written with fellow politician Jan Bøhler. It’s called Nær folk (Near the people), but some political commentators were joking that Center has perhaps come a bit too near, with voters now accustomed to social distancing suddenly pulling away.

Vedum (left) controversially recruited Labour Party veteran Jan Bøhler, a longtime Member of Parliament from Oslo, over to the Center Party last year, in a move widely viewed as an effort to win more urban voters. Now the pair have written a book about their political experiences and the direction in which they want to take Norway over at least the next four years. Their book launch on Monday was, however, overshadowed by Center’s sudden slump in public opinion polls. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm

Reporters were also asking whether it was a mistake for Vedum and his party to declare him as a prime minister candidate, not only against the incumbent Conservatives’ Erna Solberg (down to around 21 percent in the latest polls) but also against his own potential government partner, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre. Vedum insists it was not.

Most political analysts tie the Center Party’s dive to its highly questionable climate policy. Vedum has been out championing diesel-fueled cars, supporting the oil industry, protecting farmers and opposing much higher carbon taxes. Center has been criticized for emerging as having among the worst climate profiles, second only to the conservative Progress Party. Some party members have been demanding that climate issues get more attention from Center during the remaining weeks of the election campaign.

“We’ve been branded as an environmental versting (worst in the class),” complained Hilde Kraggerud, leader of Center’s chapter in the Østfold region. “I don’t think that’s fair.” Vedum has noted that Center does support better mass transit and funding for a carbon capture and support facility at a major garbage and recycling plant. He just thinks Norwegians still need their cars, especially in rural areas: “I think we have the best climate policy,” Vedum told newspaper Aftenposten this week, “it’s just a different sort of climate policy.”

With just two-and-a-half weeks left before the September 13 election, the abrupt change in the polls has grabbed attention this week, not least since the far more climate-friendly parties like Greens and the Liberals have climbed. In the end, Vedum repeatedly claims, the voters will decide.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund