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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Norway’s unpopular leaders hang on

NEWS ANALYSIS: Speculation has swirled this week over whether Norway’s unpopular left-center government will collapse. Both the Labour- and Center parties lost badly in Monday’s local elections, but some predict their national leaders will endure the lack of confidence in them until they probably also lose the national election in 2025, and then let party colleagues mount a comeback.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party (right) and his finance minister, Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, at a nationally televised party leader debate just after suffering huge losses in local elections. PHOTO: Stortinget

Neither Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party nor Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of the Center Party have given any indication they’ll abandon their posts. Both have acknowledged the huge election losses, from Halden in the south to Hammerfest in the north, but still tie most of their unpopularity to factors like voter frustration over inflation and higher interest rates.

Labour Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng denies either Labour or the government is in crisis, as many of her own party colleagues have claimed. “What’s most important to me is that we acknowledge we have election results that are much too poor,” Stenseng told state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday. “Now we’ll start working towards both 2025 (when the next national election will be held) and 2027 (the next local elections),” she added, after the party conducts what she called a “thorough evaluation” of what went wrong in 2023.

Labour Party Kjersti Stenseng, speaking to disappointed party colleagues on election night. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

It may get messy, with Labour board member Masud Gharahkhani (who also serves as president of the Norwegian Parliament) candidly calling the election results “terrible” and that they must be taken seriously. “People are disappointed in us and we have to acknowledge that,” he told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) as he headed into a preliminary showdown at Labour Party headquarters on Tuesday.

Voters including Baran Salman in Oslo are already speaking out. He told newspaper Klassekampen that his family has always voted for Labour, but not this time. “I think Labour has become spineless,” Salman said. “They’ve yielded far too much to the Greens and other radical parties.” He’s tired of paying road tolls amounting to NOK 7,000 (nearly USD 700) a month because his job requires use of a car.

‘Clear message’ from voters
DN editorialized on Wednesday that voters sent a “clear message” to Støre’s government that they’ve lost confidence in it. DN claimed that government rhetoric has been more divisive than unifying, and that “chaotic” tax policy has alientated both business and households. That in turn is scaring off investors needed for alternative energy projects, to cut Norway’s own carbon emissions from the oil and gas industries that both Labour and Center strongly support.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum hasn’t had good press this week. PHOTO: Stortinget

“The Center Party talks a lot about serving ‘all of Norway,’ but in practice Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and his party colleagues carry out policies that enrich their core constituents at the expense of the much larger common good,” editorialized DN. “Voters have figured that out, and responded by cutting the Center Party’s support by around 40 percent.”

Labour and Center lost voters in both rural and urban areas, with Center ending up with less than 1 percent of the vote in Oslo. That left one of Norway’s government coalition partners without representation on the city council of Norway’s own capital.

Labour has also lost its labourers
Labour, meanwhile, lost the status it had as Norway’s largest party for the past 99 years. It’s been undergoing a long decline for years, though, and may never recover the size and status it held in the decades after World War II. In recent years, Labour has lost the labourers who came from industrial towns and cities around Norway. Industry has been modernized, while many plumbers, construction workers, electricians and others who once made up Labour’s voter base now come from other areas of the European Economic Area and neither live nor vote in Norway. Those who do, many from Poland, tend to vote conservative.

Many of the old “working class” neighbourhoods in Oslo that once voted solidly Labour, like Sagene and Grünerløkka, no longer do. Gentrification and a sharp rise in housing prices have altered their demographics, and both voted most for non-socialist parties in this week’s election.

Voters effectively fired Labour Party veteran Raymond Johansen as head of Oslo’s city government. He may re-emerge, though, as a government minister if Støre decides to make changes within his government. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

The Norwegian Labour Party thus faces huge challenges, also internally from members who think Støre is giving in to Center on too many issues. There are no clear candidates to replace Støre, either. Neither of his two new deputy leaders, Tonje Brenna and Jan Christian Vestre, are ready to take over and Brenna also got in trouble earlier this year over various conflicts of interest, another ongoing problem that has tarnished Støre’s government.

Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim is among those predicting that Støre will thus carry on, perhaps with some ministerial changes to freshen up his government. The poor election results have made some high-profile Labour Party politicians at the local level available and in need of new jobs, including Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen and Stavanger’s popular mayor Kari Nessa Nordtun.

If interest rates stabilize and inflation declines, Støre’s and Vedum’s jobs may also become easier. In the meantime, Støre’s diplomatic skills and expertise in foreign relations still make him best-suited to deal with Russia’s war on Ukraine and all the international tension it has created.

“For Støre and Vedum this involves a strategy they set a year ago (when they were caught in multiple crises):” Alstadheim wrote. “That they’ll get through a difficult time, and that it will sooner or later get better.” Berglund



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