The Great Northern Toss-Up: Norway’s General Election
Center-right incumbent Erna Solberg seeks another term as the country's prime minister

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By Alexander Boylston

Prompted by the dual shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US President within six months of each other in 2016, many considered last year to be the “year of the political earthquake.” It was a year in which what was deemed a “wave” of populist sentiment propelled not only Trump and Brexit, but also other shocks to the established order. Chief among these were strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s win in the Philippine presidential election and far-right populist Norbert Hofer’s near-victory in the Austrian presidential election. Unsurprisingly, once the year was over, media outlets quickly began making bold predictions about right-wing populist parties potentially winning more elections in the coming year, identifying France, the Netherlands, and Germany as potential places for far-right gains. Defying the perceived trend towards right-wing populism, Dutch anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party failed to gain enough seats to overtake the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in March while French voters chose centrist candidate and liberal darling Emmanuel Macron over the Trump-endorsed Marine Le Pen in their presidential election. Meanwhile, British PM and Conservative Party leader Theresa May lost her majority in parliament after calling a snap election and the Labour Party, led by left-wing populist Jeremy Corbyn, managed to gain 30 seats. The next big election will take place in Germany in September and there appears to be little doubt that chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will remain the largest party in the Bundestag (Germany’s lower legislative house).

In the shuffle between Trump, the UK, and the EU, one election has been overlooked: that which is taking place in Norway on September 11th. This election, held to elect members of the country’s parliament (the Storting) via the party-list proportional representation method, gives current PM Erna Solberg and her Conservative Party (Høyre) a chance to stay in power for another term. However, she and her governing coalition partners face a challenge from the social-democratic, center-left Labour Party (AP) and its leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who have led the opposition in the Storting despite winning the largest number of seats in the 2013 election. Due to the country’s strong social-democratic roots and an oil price crash in 2014, it was assumed that Solberg’s center-right governing coalition, which also includes the right-wing populist Progress Party (FrP), would not stay in government for more than one term.

However, despite AP’s campaigns against Solberg’s policies like upper class tax cuts, privatizing formerly state-owned companies, and using the country’s wealth fund to stimulate the economy, recent polls have shown that AP’s poll numbers have dropped nearly six points since June. Now, Solberg’s center-right bloc is actually leading in the polls for the first time in nine months. Due to the use of proportional representation in Norway’s elections, neither the AP nor Høyre coalitions look poised to capture the 85 seats needed for a majority in the Storting and minor parties will likely be the keys to government formation. As such, both Støre and Solberg will likely have to seek out other minor parties as coalition partners, leaving parties such as the Greens, Liberals, and Centre holding the balance of power.

Although the outcome was once dismissed as unlikely, Norwegians now seem to be endorsing the possibility of Solberg winning another term as PM: a recent poll showed that she was the first choice for Prime Minister of 43.4 percent of Norwegians, compared to 40.4 for AP leader Støre. Solberg and her coalition have gained ground on AP largely due to the recovery of Norway’s economy since 2014, as well as her investment in infrastructure and desire to create more jobs through lower taxes. Solberg has warned that a change in government could “derail” the economic recovery taking place and that tax increases proposed by AP would in fact “stifle…necessary investments” into Norway. In fact, Norway’s economy grew 1.3 percent during the first half of 2017 – its best performance during Solberg’s time in office and the “strongest” pace of growth since 2012, when AP was in power. Solberg’s coalition is also stating that it deserves more time to implement some of its other proposed reforms, which include offering citizens the choice to go to private hospitals at the state’s expense, increasing the number of high-performing students entering teacher training, and merging of municipalities on a large scale throughout Norway.

Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party (Høyre) and PM of Norway since 2013 (NRK P3)

Solberg can certainly make the case that her government has been responsible for sustained economic growth and that she will deliver again if re-elected. However, her path to a second term is not as clearly defined as the economy and AP’s poll numbers appear to indicate. Despite economic growth, not all of Solberg’s policies have been met with praise. Her decision to dip into her country’s sovereign wealth fund to account for budget deficits (making her the first leader to do so) did indeed help the country stabilize its economy but the move was met with criticism from opposition parties since this wealth fund, worth nearly $1 trillion, is largely funded by oil revenues. At a time when wealthy countries are under pressure to pivot away from fossil fuels to combat climate change, Solberg’s use of oil funds has irked not only its left-wing rivals like AP and the Socialist Left (SV) but also the environmentalists in the Green Party (MDG), who claim that they are open to forming a government with either side but will likely not support a government which relies on fossil fuels to fund its activities.

Additionally, Solberg’s “municipal reform,” which aims to reduce the number of municipalities in Norway from 428 to 80, has been met with notable backlash from many residents of rural areas. This is concerning to Solberg’s government because one of AP’s likely coalition partners, the agrarian Centre Party (SP), may end up earning the votes of these disaffected residents instead of Solberg’s coalition. Perhaps the most notable obstacle to Solberg and Høyre forming another government is its current junior governing partner, the Progress Party (FrP). Høyre and the FrP only hold a combined 77 out of 169 seats in the Storting and were therefore only able to form a minority government with the support of the center-right Christian Democrats (KrF) and Liberals (V). This time, however, Solberg will likely have some trouble forming a government with FrP because KrF recently announced that it will no longer support any coalition with FrP. Meanwhile, the Liberals are facing mounting pressure from their members to not provide any support to a government with FrP. FrP is still projected to be the third largest party in the Storting (behind AP and Høyre) and at one time was gaining in the polls, but in spite of this, its increasingly populist, anti-immigrant tone has been off-putting to many Norwegians and has often left Solberg defending her partnership with FrP rather than touting it.

Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour Party (Associated Press)

What was once his election to lose has become somewhat of an uphill battle for AP’s leader Støre. If current polls are to be believed, AP, at around 27 to 28 percent, could be heading for its worst election result since 2001, severely limiting Støre’s ability to form a government without substantial assistance from smaller parties. Støre was once able to criticize Solberg about the economy due to the downturn in 2014, but since the recovery, he has admitted that the upturn has been beneficial. Rather than give Solberg credit, he attributes the turnaround to factors like “a weak currency, low interest rates, and… wage negotiations.” Nonetheless, now that he can no longer attack Solberg’s economic performance, Støre has gone after Solberg on her tax policies and use of money from the oil-financed sovereign wealth fund, claiming that she has “spent too much oil money” while at the same time decreasing tax revenue. Knowing that his AP may have to enter into a coalition with more left-wing and environmentalist parties, Støre has backed off from supporting further oil exploration in northern Norway and has thus been able to call out Solberg on her use of oil revenues to shore up the budget.

Assuming that AP fails to pass 30 percent on election day and that Solberg’s Høyre/FrP coalition fails to get any external support, Støre would have to get creative in forming a government by courting smaller parties. The easiest option could be recreating the “Red-Green Coalition” led by former AP leader and PM Jens Stoltenberg from 2005 to 2013, consisting of AP, the Centre Party (SP), and the Socialist Left (SV). But, seeing as how this coalition is currently not polling high enough for a majority in the Storting, Støre will likely have to seek out new coalition or a “confidence and supply” agreement with other parties. Støre could either court the center/center-right which supported Solberg or pursue environmentalist/left-wing parties like the Greens or the Marxist Red Party (Rødt). He has thus far been reluctant to discuss potential coalition partners but it has been reported that an AP-Green alliance has been discussed by both parties; meanwhile a surprise surge in support for Rødt and other left-wing parties may help AP. Of course, allying with these smaller, more focused parties can be a double-edged sword for AP as well since both the Greens and Rødt are far more focused on curtailing things like the oil industry and NATO/EU involvement. Even former coalition partners like SV are now challenging the government on these issues as well. Thus, although there will likely be no large populist shock or boisterous leader elected as PM, the surprise of the election will be whether Solberg or Støre manages to form a functioning government.

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