Oil polluted talks for a new government

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Norway’s Socialist Left party (SV) has pulled out of talks to form a new majority left-center government, after the Labour and Center parties refused to alter their pro-oil policy or accept SV’s proposals for lower emissions, protection of the environment and stricter tax policy. It’s a big defeat for Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who now faces becoming prime minister of a two-party government with no majority in Parliament.

SV leader Audun Lysbakken refused to form a majority government with Labour and Center after they refused to accept SV’s proposals to rein in the oil industry, cut emissions, protect wildlife, alter tax policy and reverse privatization of welfare services. PHOTO: SV

“It’s with great disappointment that we must acknowledge that in SV’s opinion, there’s no political foundation to form a red-green government,” SV leader Audun Lysbakken said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. He and his SV party colleagues withdrew from exploratory talks to form what SV had hoped could be a left-center government with a “green” emphasis.

Lysbakken wouldn’t point to any single issue that led to the most disagreement with the Labour- and Center Party delegations. Rather, he said, it was a sum of all the issues that have been thorny all along. Labour’s and Center’s refusal to rein in Norway’s increasingly controversial oil and gas industry has been the biggest problem, since SV wants to stop further exploration and wind down production. Labour and Center are far more keen to protect jobs in the industry, with Labour especially under pressure from powerful trade union federations.

Lysbakken rattled off oil policy, emission cuts, nature conservation, taxes and efforts to reverse privatization of welfare services as “examples of areas where we have made proposals that we think are important for a government platform, but which we have not won support for.” After withdrawing SV’s delegation from the talks that have been going on since last week, he checked out of the Hurdalsjøen Hotel north of Oslo and left.

‘Hoped for another outcome’
Støre predictably tried to put the best possible spin on the situation, noting how he had at least managed to get the three biggest parties on the left side of Norwegian politics together “for conversations on a basis for government negotiations.” He had to concede, however, that “SV has come to the conclusion that the political distance (among it, Labour and Center) is too great to form a foundation for government talks.”

Both he and Lysbakken stressed they still had a “good tone” between themselves, both politically and personally. “I had hoped for another outcome,” Støre told reporters outside the hotel.

SV leader Audun Lysbakken (left) and Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre shown chatting just after the election on September 13 that seemed to clear the way for a majority left-center government. Lysbakken’s party, however, couldn’t go along with either Labour’s or the Center Party’s pro-oil politics. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

He added that he’d had the impression Labour and Center were ready to head into actual negotiations on a government platform, “but SV concluded they were not ready for that.”

Lysbakken wouldn’t rule out making another attempt over the next four years to restart negotiations for a left-center majority government, but only if they begin with a “blank page.” Støre said he was open to resuming talks with SV later, but not now.

SV vowed to remain “a power factor” in Parliament. If they can team up with the Reds, which won many more seats in Parliament than ever before, and the Greens, they stand to form a powerful far-left bloc that may even win support on climate issues with the Liberal Party, which also won full representation in Parliament. Together, all four anti-oil parties would hold 20.5 percent of the vote. SV has refused, meanwhile, to enter into any “support agreements” with Labour and Center.

That leaves Labour and Center with the option of moving forward with formation of a minority government based on winning just 40 percent of the vote. Lysbakken said it will be “natural,” however, for a Labour-Center government to come to SV first during state budget negotiations. With Labour and Center also agreeing with the Conservatives and even the far-right Progress Party on a variety of issues from support for the oil industry to defense, they can probably also gain support from the non-socialist side as well.

Center gets its wish
Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum has always wanted to govern only with Labour. Now he stands to get his wish fulfilled, albeit without majority support in Parliament or among voters. It remains a defeat for Støre at the starting line, consoled only by the fact that voter support for Labour is twice as large (at 26.3 percent) than Center’s (13.6 percent). That presumably would make Center the junior partner with half as many ministerial posts as Labour.

Magnus Takvam, political commentator for state broadcaster NRK, claimed there’s no question Støre and Labour have suffered a “considerable political defeat” that reduces his government power. A minority government with just Center also “creates uncertainty about the government’s placement on the left side of Norwegian politics.” Some commentators were already calling a Labour-Center partnership a “center” government, not a more left-leaning government that voters expected.

These two have major disagreements: Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (left) and Lysbakken, shown here at one of state broadcaster NRK’s live debates during the election campaign. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Center not only firmly supports the oil and gas industry, it’s also been accused of having a poor climate profile in general, is adamant about wanting to kill off wolves and other predators to protect open-grazing livestock, it mostly opposes immigration, is not known as a big fan of international cooperation and demands subsidy and other state support for farmers and others in outlying areas. Sylvi Listhaug, leader of Norway’s most right-wing Progress Party, claimed at pre-election debates that Center, especially given its strong support for the oil industry,  “should be standing over here on this (right-wing) side, with us,” Progress and the Conservatives.

Now Støre and his Labour Party will basically also have to deal with two levels of opposition, Takvam notes, both from the non-socialist (right) side in Parliament and from the left side in Parliament that won’t be represented in government even though the left side won the election.

‘Sad signal’ for the climate and environment
Environmental organizations in Norway, meanwhile, were deeply disappointed. Greenpeace called SV’s pullout “a sad signal for environmental policy,” while Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth claimed it was “very sad” because it reveals “which direction the new government will take” on environmental policy.

“If Støre doesn’t deliver on climate issues, it will be an historic betrayal of future generations,” claimed Greenpeace leader Frode Pleym.

Siri Martinsen, leader of animal rights organization NOAH, thanked SV for refusing to cave in to Center’s wildlife policy. “NOAH is glad that SV kept its promise not to accept policies that threaten nature and animals, which Center has promoted,” Martinsen told NRK.

Rasmus Hansson of the Greens Party said he wasn’t surprised SV won’t join a government with Labour and Center. He claimed it opens up the possibility to form “a real green bloc in Parliament.” The Greens, he said, “will invite SV, the Liberals, the Reds and Christian Democrats to a broad alliance in Parliament to put pressure on Labour and SP in important environmental issues and during budget negotiations.” Hansson thinks Parliament will gain more power with a minority government. Lysbakken also claimed later in the evening that he and his party intended to exploit the power they’ll have in Parliament.

Guri Melby of the Liberals agrees that SV’s pullout is “a bad sign for climate policy.” She fears, however, that Norway will end up with a “grey” government that can even seek a majority with the Conservatives or the Progess Party.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund