A Battle For and Against Tradition: The 2017 Norwegian Parliamentary Election

On September 11, Norway held its parliamentary election. Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s centre-right coalition held 89 seats , returning to the government with a reduced majority. The centre-left  earned 79 seats. The Storting, Norway’s parliament, is comprised of 169 seats, 85 of which are required to form a majority.. In the last parliamentary election, held on 9 September 2013, Solberg’s Conservative Party formed a two-party minority government with the right-wing populist Progress Party, the supply and confidence of the centrist Liberals and Christian Democrat parties providing her with power. Solberg is the first Conservative to win a second consecutive mandate since 1985.

Composition of the Norwegian Storting after the 2017 election/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_parliamentary_election,_2017

Solberg’s Conservative campaign focused on furthering tax cuts in an attempt to bolster the economy.  The opposition, led by Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who took over after Jens Stoltenberg left politics to become Secretary-General of NATO, looked to increase taxes, especially for top earners, and to strengthen the welfare state. With these proposals, Støre hoped to reduce the increasing economic inequality within Norway.

Despite her re-election, Solberg faces future struggles in forming the government. The opposition, Støre’s Labour Party, retained its status as the largest party in the Storting. Prior to the election, her coalition held a minority in parliament, requiring only one of the centre-right parties to help support and pass legislation. In the wake of the recent election, Solberg requires support from both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Both the smaller parties, however, have ruled out a coalition involving the Progress Party, as the populist party goes against their views on climate and immigration. Støre’s Labour Party is also against the Progress Party, as he believes their views of limiting migration to Norway is a betrayal of Norwegian values of acceptance and openness when it came to other cultures.

“We support a centre-right government, so we will see what happens. If that’s not the type of government we get, we’ll go into opposition. But we will not support a blue-blue [Conservative-Progress, ed.] government,” Christian Democrat leader Knut Arild Hareide said.

Rather than having the full support from the smaller parties from the outset, Solberg will have to negotiate with them on an individual basis in order to gain their support in parliament and make the government effective to pass legislation.

“We will talk to the two partners the coalition has had in parliament, and we’ll try to reach an agreement with them. And we’ll see where we go from there,” Solberg said.

The election held surprises for other parties. Støre’s Labour Party, despite the tradition of being Norway’s largest party in the Storting, had one of the worst election results, losing votes in every county’s administrative regions. The Agrarian centrist party, whose platform is against EU membership and pro-decentralization, had one of the higher gains, receiving 10.3% of the vote and 18 seats in the Storting; the result was 10 seats higher than in the 2013 election. The Red Party, which had not been represented in the Storting since its founding in 2007, gained a parliamentary seat. The election also saw a record number of women enter the Storting, with the 70 seats earned representing 42% of the parliament.

Key issues in the election included  “Norwegian” national values and their role in accepting migrants, asylum-seekers, and the relationship with the European Union. The Centre Party, which earned 19 seats and is viewed as an unlikely Conservative coalition partner, campaigned against what they viewed as an “overcentralization” of government: in a vast country with few major cities and more smaller towns, “distant decision-making” centered in Oslo had too much power over local municipalities. The Centre Party’s populist rhetoric of “corrupt elite” versus the “pure people” also comes into play in their opposition of Norway’s European Economic Area agreement with the EU as “challenging popular rule”, going against “traditional Norwegian values”.

Another battleground in coalition talks is the oil industry, as the country is western Europe’s biggest oil exporter. Norway’s economy is built upon the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund: $1 trillion built from offshore oil and gas income, of which the first revenue transfer occurred in May 1996. After 2013, the price of oil fell 70%. As a result, Solberg’s coalition made tax cuts, expanded fiscal policy consisting of investment in infrastructure, and, in January 2016, made the first ever withdrawal from the sovereign wealth fund, withdrawing more than it deposited. The Labour party blamed the government for rising unemployment rates. However, these problems are only exacerbated by the divide between the Progress Party and the Liberals. The Progress Party is pro-drilling and wants to expand exploration for new drilling areas, such as off the Lofoten Islands and other places in the far north.

“Russian players are pushing farther north, and we need knowledge about our resource base on the Norwegian side,” Petroleum Minister and Progress Party member Terje Soviknes said. “An opening process would be the best for that, but it’s not something the government has taken a position on.”

The Liberals, however, want to get Norway out of the oil business. By rewriting Norway’s tax codes that give generous subsidies to offshore exploration, they hope to move away from Norway’s past economic policy.

“Our oil policy is very simple, we shall not enter vulnerable areas, such as Lofoten and Vesteralen, and we need to redefine the ice-edge and the polar front,” Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Ola Elvestuen, said. “Part of this will mean looking at the tax system to shift the risks of oil exploration back to the companies from the taxpayer.”

“Regardless of which government we get, the challenge will be to use less oil money,” Erik Bruce, a chief analyst at Nordea Markets, said. “There is broad consensus about the outlook for the sovereign wealth fund and the Norwegian economy, which means a tighter fiscal policy.”

Many have their doubts that the government will last. Kåre Willoch, the only other Conservative prime minister to win a second consecutive election, did not reach the end of his second four-year term. In 1986, a vote of no-confidence brought an end to the Willoch government a year after his re-election.

“[It is] unlikely the government would survive four years.” University of Oslo’s Professor Knut Heidar said. “The immigration issue, or maybe the urban-rural relations, will push the Christian Democrats to topple it.”

Amidst concerns regarding government survival, Solberg remarked “You can never be confident that you will survive for four years. There was a lot of speculation that this [government] would not last after the last election in 2013. We have managed to do this and I think it’s possible to do it for the four next years.”

In the coming weeks, Solberg’s focus will be on negotiating with her centre-right and populist partners to find common ground. With opposing pressure from the red-green bloc, Solberg’s decisions will have to be ones that will allow her coalition to get the most legislation through the Storting.

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