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Monday, May 20, 2024

Non-socialists sweep Norway’s local elections

A new conservative wave crashed over Norway in local elections on Monday, resulting in bitter defeats for Labour- and Center Party incumbents. Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservative Party is now Norway’s largest for the first time in nearly a century.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party had to concede many local election victories to his arch rival and predecessor, Conservatives leader Erna Solberg. He struggled to answer the main question at a post-midnight party leader debate in Parliament: “What happened?” PHOTO: Stortinget

“A 99-year tradition was broken today,” declared a triumphant Solberg after her Conservatives (Høyre) finally ranked as the biggest party in the land for the first time since 1924, with 25.9 percent of the vote. That compared to historically low support for current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), which won only 21.7 percent.

Next in line was a resurgent right-wing Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), with 11.4 percent of the vote nationwide. Solberg led a Conservative coalition government from 2013-2021 with Progress, the Liberals (Venstre) and Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti). The latter two also did well enough on Monday to form new local conservative coalitions and recapture political power in Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger and many other communities that have been Labour bastions for decades, such as Sarpsborg, Porsgrunn and Lillestrøm. Sarpsborg, an industrial and agricultural city near Norway’s southern border to Sweden, has been led by Labour Party governments for 110 years.

Solberg congratulated the smaller non-socialist parties for their success and thanked voters for their renewed confidence in parties that have promised to ease or even eliminate property taxes imposed at the local level, reduce the overall tax burden and rein in local fee hikes. They’ve also promised improvements in elder care, which is the responsibility of local governments and was another big issue in recent election campaigns.

“This is a result we can be fantastically proud of,” Solberg told her cheering troops at party headquarters in Oslo late Monday night. She quickly reminded them, though, that a new election campaign looms in the run-up to the next national elections in 2025, when she’s determined to win back power at the national level from Støre’s ailing and what some commentators call “historically unpopular” government coalition with the Center Party.

Prime Minister Støre (left) is not at all happy with local election results, which many think reflect his unpopular coalition with the Center Party and its leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (left). PHOTO: Stortinget

Støre, his party and his government have been struggling almost since he formed his minority coalition with the rural-oriented Center Party in 2021. He and his finance minister, Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, have mostly blamed all the crises they immediately faced, such as recurring waves of the Corona virus, Russia’s war on Ukraine and a period of skyrocketing electricity rates, along with rising interest rates and inflation.

“I understand that voters are uneasy over higher interest rates and prices,” Støre said during the late-night debate with other party leaders. “It’s a varied picture.” He admitted, though, that “it hurts,” noting that “our goal in this election was to win and win back the most mayors and city government leaders around the country, seek power and influence with our values over what we represent. We knew it would be tough, and it has been tough.” Labour’s results were 3.1 points below those in the last local elections in 2019.

Støre’s coaliton partner, the Center Party, suffered even worse, tumbling 6.2 points to win just 8.2 percent of the vote nationwide. That’s nothing short of a disaster for a party that depends on a constituency of farmers and residents of smaller cities and outlying districts that often feel neglected by Oslo and other Norwegian cities. Center leader Vedum isn’t one to admit mistakes and was relatively tight-lipped about his party’s defeats all over the country: “We had higher ambitions than this.”

Embattled Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre paused outside Parliament shortly after midnight to answer a few questions before a post-election party leader debate inside. He admitted that losing power in so many towns and cities around Norway “hurts,” making it an even darker night for his Labour Party. PHOTO: Stortinget

The left-wing Socialist Left (SV) fared better than Labour and Center, up 0.7 of a point to 6.8 percent of vote, which may reflect its decision not to join Støre’s left-center government and thus have an assured majority in Parliament. SV has gained by staying outside the government, especially when it needs a majority. The far-left Reds Party, meanwhile, won just 3.5 percent of the vote, down 0.3 of a point. It was plagued by a shoplifting scandal involving its former charismatic leader last summer, though, so seems grateful for surviving that with a new leader at the helm, Marie Sneve Martinussen.

The Conservatives scored the biggest gain, up 5.8 points over the last election, followed by Progress with an increase of 3.2 percent. Progress also won some big individual victories and will now take over power in the west coast city of  Ålesund, for example, where it won nearly 30 percent of the vote. The non-socialist Liberal Party, meanwhile, ended with 5 percent of the vote on a nationwide basis, up 1.1 points, but also won big in several mid-size cities. The conservative Christian Democrats ended with 4 percent, putting them in a position to join local non-socialist coalitions especially in Southern Norway.

Climate issues lost out to personal economy
Many had expected this year’s local elections to be a “climate vote” aimed at finally trying to cut Norway’s carbon emissions and preserve nature. Several large parties stressed climate issues, while others downplayed them as they sought votes from all those with jobs in the oil and gas industry or still skeptical towards climate change.

The most climate-friendly party, the Greens (MDG), meanwhile, won just 4.1 percent of the vote, down 2.7 points in what may be a voter backlash against the Greens’ constant battle against use of private cars. That’s angered neighbourhoods that have lost street parking to bicycle lanes, for example.

Commentators generally were generally agreeing on Tuesday that pocketbook issues won out over climate issues, and that the local elections were a reaction to the unpopular national government. That doesn’t bode well for Støre in 2025, if his coalition with Center survives until then. Berglund



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