Seismic shift in Norwegian politics as government survives election

OSLO – In the end, Erna Solberg’s center-right government gained a comfortable majority in terms of seats, but were only five and a half thousand votes away from losing out under a complicated clause of Norway’s electoral system. Nails were bit until early morning, as results from the cities slowly started ticking in to assure the government’s majority. Most of all, the election was a massive defeat for the Labor Party (Ap), which has never spent more than six years out of power since World War II. Despite all the party’s potential partners making gains in the election, Labor’s losses kept leader Jonas Gahr Støre out of the Prime Minister’s chair – and could quite possibly set off a power struggle in the party.

Under Norway’s electoral system, 150 “district seats” are divided across the country’s 19 counties, and then distributed in each county according to parties’ share of the vote. The real excitement at this election lay in the last 19 seats – the so-called “levelling seats”, which are distributed to parties to give them a share of seats in parliament that roughly corresponds to their share of the national vote. Parties need 4 percent of the national vote to be eligible for these levelling seats, and at various points in the campaign, there were up to five parties hovering around the 4% threshold. On election night, it quickly became apparent that the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats would be the parties in the firing line. As counting went on, both parties dipped below at various times, thus losing seats and giving Labor leader Støre a glimmer of hope. In the end, the Liberal Party was saved by a rally in the cities, while the Christian Democrats – who have a strong base, but little appeal with swing voters – were only 5,602 votes away from dipping below the threshold. All sides will have to remind themselves of exactly how close the election was, in the end.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has a tough job ahead of her, as three out of four parties in her alliance are unsatisfied with the present arrangement: since their election victory in 2013, Solberg’s Conservative Party (H) have governed with the populist Progress Party (FrP) in cabinet, while the Liberal Party (V) and the Christian Democrats (KrF) have agreed to give the government support in parliament in return for policy concessions. Solberg has managed the toughest job in Norwegian politics – keeping the center-right united; and her tactics succeeded in playing the electoral system in her favor. However, tough-talking Minister of Immigration Sylvi Listhaug (FrP) has long been an open wound in the partnership, and Solberg will have to reconcile the need to keep the Progress Party in line with the demands of the Liberals and Christian Democrats to minimize the populist wing of the party’s influence. Still, with a limping Labor Party and a fractured opposition, Solberg is in position to become the longest-serving center-right Prime Minister in almost a century.

State of the parties:

The Labor Party (Ap) finished with 27.4% of the vote, and 49 of the 169 seats in parliament. This is their second-worst result since the war. Jonas Gahr Støre, formerly a very popular minister, has squandered a massive lead in the opinion polls from two years ago. His pandering to the centrist parties, while probably necessary as far as coalition-building goes, ended up costing the party numerous voters to the left. The party’s campaign, based on raising taxes and accusing the government of mismanagement of the economy, did not resonate. Støre, who is one of Norway’s wealthiest politicians and comes from a highly privileged background in Oslo’s western suburbs, seemed unable to connect with voters and had trouble giving a clear explanation for why he should be Prime Minister. His position in the party is tenuous at best, and speculations about his future began the second the exit poll was published.

For the Conservative Party (H), 25.1% of the vote and 45 seats is a slight loss, but still their second-strongest showing in 30 years. More importantly, the party has held on to power and is closer to the size of the Labor Party than it has ever been. Solberg’s party still holds a commanding position on the center-right. Knowing that winning a third term in 2021 will be almost impossible, she may also feel free to pursue more traditional center-right policies such as tax reform, state asset sales and local government reform.

The Progress Party (FrP) will be the first of many to have mixed feelings about the night. 15.3% and 28 seats in parliament is a result that represents a miniscule decline for the party, which is impressive after four controversial years in government. They will be very happy with disproving the many naysayers of 2013, who believed that entering government would be a disaster for the party. Putting the aforementioned Listhaug at center-stage in the election campaign, instead of party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, was probably the best decision they made. She shored up their base with her controversial rhetoric, while her rural and religious background helped the party improve in some regions. Still, FrP know that Solberg may reward the two smaller center-right parties for their loyalty, and deprive Listhaug and other controversial ministers of their influence. Being seen as a mere support bank for a more traditional center-right government would be disastrous for the party.

The Center Party (Sp) are the big winners of the night, almost doubling in size to 10.3% and 18 seats. As expected, the party made massive gains by railing against the centralization of power and services in rural Norway. Leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum took the party to their best result since 1993. Disappointingly, however, they will not be in government. It will be interesting to see how Vedum manages his party in opposition. The party made many of its gains outside the traditional heartlands of Eastern Norway, particularly in the North, where they have been almost alone in opposing the closure of military bases crucial to many local economies.

For the Socialist Left Party (SV), this election represents a major relief after more than a decade of decline. 6.0% of the vote and 11 seats is enough to begin a rebuild for leader Audun Lysbakken, despite the disappointment of not being able to replace the current government. The party swallowed up discontent from several sides, taking in left-wingers disappointed with Labor’s move to the center and environment-conscious voters who could no longer stomach the Liberal Party’s support of the present government. If the Socialist Left Party can manage to function as an effective opposition, Lysbakken and his new caucus could see good years ahead of them.

The Liberal Party (V) were the latest to catch their breath last night. 4.3% of the vote and 8 seats is a drop, but it also represents a milestone. Party leader Trine Skei Grande is the first to take the party over 4% at two elections in a row, since a devastating split over Norwegian membership of the European Communities in 1972. In the end, the party was probably catapulted over the 4% threshold by tactical votes from other center-right parties. Still, the party deserves credit for recovering from a low of around 3% in the polls earlier this year. Grande and her team now face some tough decisions – do they enter the government or continue today’s agreement?

The Christian Democrats (KrF) once again survive thanks to their base of non-conformist Christians. The party finishes on 4.2% of the vote, with 8 seats. KrF needs to do some serious soul-searching, and leader Knut Arild Hareide faces a tough challenge, as the party has not made gains in an election since 1997. Gone is the big-tent party created by Kjell Magne Bondevik and Valgerd Svarstad Haugland in the 1990s, which appealed to both religious and secular voters in the center of Norwegian politics. Worse still, the base is growing grayer every year. The party cannot rely on it for the future. And Hareide has placed the party in a difficult position: promising to support the Solberg government for now, but not for four years.

The Greens (MDG) as expected had the best election in their history, with 3.2% of the vote. However, they will retain their one seat, and it will switch from co-spokesperson Rasmus Hansson to his colleague, Une Aina Bastholm. Hansson had given up his safe seat in the capital Oslo, gambling that he would be able to win a seat in suburban Akershus, but the party made a poor showing in the county. With just a single seat, MDG will instead have to continue building up their organization, in the hope that they can make a long-awaited breakthrough at the next election.

The Red Party (Rødt) gained their first seat in parliament ever, although their precursor, RV, held a seat in the 90s. Party leader Bjørnar Moxnes picked up a seat in Oslo, where most of the party’s 2.4% of the vote also came from. The newcomers will not have much political influence, but Moxnes will probably cherish being able to do what he is known for on the Oslo City Council: exposing corruption and bad practices in government and public services. He will also note that deputy leader Seher Aydar was not far away from making it in. Rødt faces a question of strategy: do they continue to be a mainly Oslo-based party, or try to build a base in other cities where they have successful local branches, such as Tromsø?

The future:

As mentioned, Solberg faces a dilemma. The Liberals are now testing the waters among their members, to see if they have support to enter the government. Solberg knows that she must play a difficult game – reward the Liberals and Christian Democrats for their patience, but also not alienate the Progress Party. Over the next month, negotiations will be held, and Solberg’s second term will formally begin in mid-October.

Should Støre manage to hold on as leader, the Labor Party will have accepted a seismic shift in Norwegian politics. For the first time, a catastrophic defeat against an unpopular center-right government will not result in the resignation of the party leader, thus implying that a center-right government is the norm, and not the exception, in Norway. However, it is not unlikely that Støre will face a challenge to his leadership in the near future. Two likely candidates are Trond Giske and Hadia Tajik. Giske has a relatively strong base in the party’s rural branches, but is a divisive figure, seen by many as arrogant. At 51, he also represents much the same generation as Støre and previous leader and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Tajik would represent a much-needed generational change for the party, and is quite popular in urban Norway, but her diversion from the norm may be too much for some: age 34, she is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she is a Muslim (though she, like most Norwegian politicians, keeps her faith private), and comes from a small industrial town in Western Norway, while the party’s base is still strongly centered in the east.

No other parties have leaders that are openly in danger, but expect changes to some parties in the next four years. Trine Skei Grande can claim two elections above 4% as her crowning achievement, and may wish to pass on the leadership of the Liberal Party after seven exhausting years on the top. Can Knut Arild Hareide hold on after yet another poor election year? The Greens will probably want to make changes at some point, with Rasmus Hansson out of parliament. And what about FrP? Can Siv Jensen keep her notoriously chaotic membership in line for another four years?

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2 tanker om “Seismic shift in Norwegian politics as government survives election

  1. Tilbaketråkk: Norwegian election | Musings, Ramblings and Reflections

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