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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Prime Minister Støre stumbles into another tough new year

NEWS ANALYSIS: When Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre delivered his annual New Year’s address to the nation earlier this week, he tried to be optimistic while repeatedly referring to “forces beyond our control.” That reflected how his government has dealt with its problems and ongoing lack of public support, and how the year ahead is likely to be just as troubled as its last two.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s New Year’s address was recorded in his official residence and broadcast nationwide, here on NRK. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Støre did his best to be upbeat, highlighting how victims of last year’s floods and landslides remained “stoic” in line with Norwegian tradition, and also insisting that “people are never powerless.” He also repeated claims he’d made at a year-end press conference, that 2024 will mark a turning point and that Norwegians can expect a return to better personal economy.

Political commentators have warned that can backfire on Støre, further disappointing voters if his predictions don’t materialize. He has frequently claimed that he and his government “take responsibility” for Norway’s recent problems, but also blame them on external factors “beyond our control” like extreme weather, without mentioning how Norway’s oil industry has contributed to climate change. Instead he further blames global inflation, rising interest rates, high energy costs and wars. That’s how he explains all the trouble that’s arisen since his Labour Party won enough support (26.3 percent of the vote) to form a minority government with the Center Party in 2021.

Voters clearly aren’t buying his explanations, since public support for his government has plunged. The latest polls show Støre’s Labour Party at historically low levels, down to 18.6 percent of the vote in a December poll conducted by research firm Norstat for newspaper Aftenposten and state broadcaster NRK. The Center Party was even worse off, down to just 6.1 percent, compared to the 13.5 percent that allowed them to share government power two years ago.

Their rival Conservative Party, meanwhile, rose to 26.3 percent while the biggest winner was the Socialist Left Party (SV) that dropped out of government negotiations with Labour and Center after the 2021 election and has since done very well on its own. It jumped to 11.4 percent, up from election results of 7.5 percent.

Prime Minister Støre and his government partner, Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, after both their parties lost local elections all over the country last autumn. PHOTO: Stortinget

Now Støre and Center leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, Norway’s finance minister, need support from other left-leaning parties more than ever as they try to build a new coalition ahead of the next national election in 2025. That’s prompted Støre to make some unusual moves that may indicate how desperate he’s become.

The most criticism has emerged from his recent efforts to seek some common ground with the Greens Party (MDG). It cooperated with Labour at the city goverment level in Oslo from 2015 until last autumn’s disastrous local elections, when Labour lost power to the Conservatives in all of Norway’s largest cities. Leaders of Labour’s Oslo chapter have blamed their loss squarely on the Greens, referring to them now as both “extremists” and “moralists” driven by ideology and forcing Labour into unwanted compromises that angered voters. That included removal of street parking all over town, creating controversial bicycle lanes that often go unused and funding free food in Oslo public schools as long as it was strictly vegetarian.

Labour’s Oslo leaders couldn’t have been happy, then, when Støre invited Greens leader Arild Hermstad to a meeting this week between just the two of them, without even their parties’ advisers in attendance. Newspaper Aftenposten reported later that Hermstad said he’d told Støre that the Greens “will probably have a more open attitude” towards the prospect of joining a government in 2025 than it did in 2021. He stressed that the Greens remain independent of any political blocs, and thus open for cooperation on either the left or right in order to secure their green goals.

Støre, keen to win support wherever he can get it, has noted that Labour and the Greens largely agree on important foreign policy issues like cooperation with the EU (the Greens even support joining the EU, as has Støre personally), NATO membership and that strong international movements are needed to offset right-wing populist trends in many countries.

Greens Party leader Arild Hermstad wants to immediately halt all licensing for more oil exploration and eventually phase out the industry. Støre wants to develop it, but is now trying to find common ground with the Greens. PHOTO: MDG

Labour and the Greens sharply disagree, however, on the future of Norway’s controversial oil and gas industry, which Labour and Støre want “to develop, not phase out.” Center is also pro-oil, while the Greens want to halt exploration for new sources of oil and gas and set a date for shutting down production. Norway will eventually need to “transition away” from fossil fuel production no matter who’s running the country, in order to comply with recent UN climate resolutions.

Given the polls showing how Labour and Støre will probably need support not only from Center and SV but also from the Greens and the far-left Reds Party in order to remain in power, Støre also invited the Reds’ new leader to a meeting right after the holidays. Støre had said he picked up a “new tone” from Marie Sneve Martinussen, who took over after former Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes was caught shoplifting and had to resign.

Martinussen, however, resisted Støre’s approach, claimed she had just as many left-wing political demands as Moxnes did and wants a new political direction for Norway, not more political meetings. Støre can thus see more potential cooperation with the Greens but then risks alienating fellow Labour members who no longer trust the Greens and, not least, top Center politicians who object to the Greens’ demands for both energy and agricultural policy. “It would be easier to cooperate with SV and the Reds,” Center veteran Nils T Bjørke told newspaper Nationen last week, while Center colleague Geir Inge Lien claimed that cooperation with either the Greens or the Reds is not something he would support.

As support for Støre’s government also collapses in Northern Norway (over unpopular proposals to close or merge local hospitals and build more wind turbines in order to electrify Equinor’s gas plant at Melkøya), the rise of the new party INP is creating more challenges and further diluting traditional blocs. INP claims to champion industry and business and won 4.1 percent of the vote in Aftenposten’s and NRK’s last poll in December. That made it bigger than either the Liberal Party (4 percent) and the Greens, which slipped to 3.9 percent.

Political analysts claim INP is mostly winning voters away from Center and Norway’s most right-wing party in Parliament, Progress, but it’s also gaining from unhappy Labour and Conservative voters. It’s also faces internal conflicts, though, and is suffering what one NRK commentator called “growing pains” on Thursday. It currently has enough voters to win full representation in Parliament, though, and thus poses yet another threat to Støre’s government.

Both government leaders, Støre and Vedum, pin their hopes on the prospect of brighter times ahead after what many call an “annus horribilis” in Norwegian politics last year, full of scandal and conflicts of interests involving top politicians and their parties. Støre had to replace three of his ministers, pardon another and deal with all the economic problems that also have resulted in a new form of relative poverty in Norway that he’s also accused of failing to address. He has even admitted that he personally may be responsible for Labour’s lack of voter support, and not just his unpopular government. When Labour tried to assess the reasons for its election losses last fall, and leaders were graded on a scale of one to 10, their average score was just 4.98.

They settled on blaming the conflicts-of-interest that toppled three ministers, the party’s failure to create a sense of security among voters in uncertain times, and that their motto of trygg styring (secure leadership) lacks credibility. Questions raised last spring over whether Labour was leading in a crisis or stuck in a crisis of its own were answered by election results: Both.

Støre has confirmed he’ll nonetheless run again as his party’s candidate for prime minister in 2025 and that’s why it’s so important that things turn around this year. Half-way through his first term, he has insisted that “it’s now the situation is most critical” and that “we’re right up to the turning point.” He told reporters in December that he just “has to show the willingness to stick with it,” maybe make some “adjustments” but hold firm “with the policies that will be carried out.” Then it will be up to the voters to judge his success.

For the full text of Støre’s New Year’s Speech for 2024, in English, click here (external link to the government’s website).

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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