Published on September 3rd, 20131
Norwegian General Elections 2013: Change… to what?
By M. Clark
With the Norwegian elections only a few days away it seems increasingly clear that the prime minister of the last 8 years Jens Stoltenberg, and his centre-left coalition, is headed for the exit. Almost as certain as this is that the next prime minister of Norway will be the leader of the Conservative Party, Erna Solberg. All the rest could not have been more unclear.
For Norwegian children who this autumn begin their first year in primary school, to the extent that they have any clue about the complex adult game of politics, there has never been another prime minister than Jens Stoltenberg. After an embarrassingly short spell in the prime minister’s office in 2001, Stoltenberg managed to fight back, build a centre-left coalition, and win two elections in succession in 2005 and 2009.
Excluding the heyday of “the founding father” of post-war Norway, Einar Gerhardsen, this has made Stoltenberg the second longest serving prime minister in the country after 1945. But in spite of Stoltenberg’s reputation as a man who can never be ruled out, it would this time take more than a political earthquake for him to retain the key to the prime minister’s office. The centre-right opposition parties, notorious for their infighting, have at last managed to agree that they have had enough of Stoltenberg, and the opinion poll numbers favour a change.
Jens Stoltenberg’s rise to power in the Labour Party, the dominant force in Norway after the Second World War, took place under dramatic circumstances. In 1996 Gro Harlem Brundtland, perhaps the most famous of post-war prime ministers in Norway after Gerhardsen, decided to pass on the mantle, and the man who had already replaced her as party leader, Torbjørn Jagland, went on to initiate one of the most turbulent periods of governance in recent Norwegian political history.
The name of his project was the «The Norwegian House», the meaning and content of which were not all that clear to the electorate. A whole ray of people from outside Norwegian politics were invited to sit in the government and many of them left again quite quickly. Jagland were forced to make as much as 18 changes to his government, but the election result in 1997, at around 35 % of the vote, would probably have been sufficient to form another Labour minority government. Instead Jagland resigned as prime minister. He had given the voters an ultimatum to reward the party with at least 36.9% of the vote (the result of the election before).
“I never thought Torbjørn could be that stupid”, Brundtland was later quoted as saying. The finance minister at that time, Jens Stoltenberg, then representing a rival camp within the Labour Party, was now in position to take advantage and rise up from the charred ruins of Jagland’s Norwegian House. After becoming party leader he quickly shifted his attention towards the prime minister’s office.
In retrospect, many would say too quickly. The way Stoltenberg forced the resignation of the governing centrist government, on an unpopular issue related to gas power energy, was judged to be both brutal and opportunistic. In the subsequent election in 2001 Stoltenberg’s team was ousted by a centre-right government. In order to repair the credibility of the party, which now had been damaged by both infighting and the rapid disintegration of the first Stoltenberg government, the Labour leader made a strategic move that was unheard of in the party’s post-war history: The formation of a centre-left coalition. The Labour Party, which had always been the sole governing party when in power now broke with its tradition and invited the more radical Socialist Left Party and a the agrarian Centre Party to join it in a three-party alliance. This coalition proved resilient and went on to win two parliamentary elections in a row: First in 2005 and then in 2009.
Parliamentary elections 2009; Parties, vote (%) and swing (%) since 2005
While the government coalition stuck together for two parliamentary periods, in spite of internal disagreement on issues like oil extraction and cash benefit for children, the opposition worked hard to undermine itself as a political alternative. Its main problem was the obvious political differences between the two extremes of the “bloc”; on the left the two small centrist parties, the Christian Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, felt they had little or nothing in common with the right flank represented by the Progress Party, which had traditionally sought to combine anti-immigration rhetoric with a low-tax agenda. In the middle, the centre-right Conservative Party – the traditional political rival of the Labour Party – fought a difficult battle to reconcile the two fringes.
But before embarking upon this project it had to overcome its own reservations about the Progress Party. This did not prove easy and before seemingly burying the hatched during the summer months leading up to the elections, party leaders Erna Solberg (The Conservative Party) and Siv Jensen (The Progress Party) were at loggerheads in the media as late as in May. While the conservatives have tended to label the Progress Party “irresponsible”, the Progress Party has often criticized the Conservative Party for displaying arrogance and being too close politically to the governing coalition.
In spite of these obvious political differences the opposition parties at least can take comfort from the fact that some combination of them is highly likely to gain a majority of the popular vote in early September. The Labour Party and its partners have not succeeded in closing the gap in the opinion polls sufficiently to have a realistic prospect of a third term in office. In addition, the four opposition parties have at least managed to agree on one thing: That they will vote against any prolongation of the centre-left coalition’s rule. With the centre-left ruled out, there are in theory two clear alternatives among the opposition parties; a right-wing two-party coalition between the Conservative Party and the Progress Party or a centre-right three-party coalition between the Conservative Party and the two smaller centrist parties.
But the latest polls make neither alternative look probable; the right-wing alternative does no longer have the prospect of achieving a parliamentary majority and the Progress Party has long ago ruled out the possibility of offering parliamentary support to a centre-right coalition. Unless one of the centrist parties decides to break its taboo of entering into a government with the Progress Party the result may be a paralysis hitherto unknown in Norwegian political history after the war.
Norway is headed for a new government following the 2013 parliamentary elections. But how the new government will look and what policy it will be pursuing is a puzzle that the most seasoned political expert might abstain from predicting.
*Cover photo by Mayan Brenn, Stoltenberg photo and Brundtland photo by Arbeiderpartiet, Jagland & Obama photo by Utenriksdepartementet, Solberg photo by Høyre, Jensen photo by Arbeiderpartiet.