29/08/2005 - Analysis
Norway, long time dominated by the Labour Party (DNA), has been governed for four years now by a rightwing government coalition rallying the Liberal Party (V), the Conservative Party (H) and Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik's Popular Christian Party (KrF). The former had already undertaken the role of Prime Minister from September 1997 to March 2000 before his government (comprising the Centre Party (SP), the Liberal Party and his own party) was overthrown after an internal dispute over the project to build a gas powered power station that was deemed to pollute too much.
Although the leftwing opposition comes out ahead in terms of voting intentions in the polls it is still not certain of winning an absolute majority in the general elections that will be held on 12th September next. The populists of the Progress Party, the kingdom's second political party might very well beat them once again.
The Political System
The Storting (the only Chamber in Parliament) has 169 members elected for a four year period by proportional vote according to the modified method of Saint Lagüe. After the elections the Storting divides into two chambers, the Odelsting and the Lagting that, depending on the agenda, meet separately or together. The kingdom is divided into 19 constituencies electing between four and fifteen representatives according to their size and number of inhabitants. The one hundred and fifty seven seats in the Storting are constituency seats. There are also 19 compensatory seats (one per constituency) distributed between the political parties who are under represented in the constituencies, i.e. those with the greatest remainder. A party must win at least 4% of the vote nationally in order to be able to participate in the distribution of the compensatory seats. Voters have the right to modify the order of the candidates on the electoral lists. However a candidate has to be chosen by more than half of the votes in order for this preference to influence the distribution of seats, since the order of the candidates is decided upon by the party and remains decisive.
The Storting has a specific feature that makes it unique in Europe: it cannot be dissolved. Three times (in 1986, 1989 and 2000) the disagreement between the liberal parties led to the resignation of the governments in power who were then replaced by minority social democrat governments.
At present eight political parties are represented in the Storting:
- The Labour Party (DNA), led by Jens Stoltenberg, is the leading opposition party. With fifty thousand members it is the kingdom's leading party. The social democrats dominated political life from the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the 1980's;
- The Conservative Party (H) is a member of the government coalition chaired by the Minister for Communal Affairs, Erna Solberg ;
- The Progress Party (FrP), led by Carl Hagen, is a populist party, the kingdom's second most important (the leading one in three counties in the West of the country, Rogaland, Hordaland and More og Romsdal). Although it provides Kjell Magne Bondevik's policy with parliamentary support, the Progress Party does not belong to the government;
- The Popular Christian Party (KrF), led by Dagfinn Hoybraten, is Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik's party;
- The Socialist Left Party (SV), whose chairperson Kristin Halvorsen positions herself to the left of the Labour Party;
- The Centre Party (Sp), chaired by the Cultural Affairs Minister, Aslaug Haga, belongs to the leftwing opposition;
- The Liberal Party (V), whose chairman Lars Sponheim is the present Agriculture minister, belongs to the government coalition;
- The Coastal Party (KYST) is a party that represents the interests of the fishing community.
The Stakes of this Election
In April and May the political parties held their annual congresses to present their programmes and align their ranks for the electoral campaign.
On 2nd and 3rd April the Socialist Left Party met in Kristianland. The party highlighted the project to reform pensions believing that the one presented by the government discriminated against those with low wages and women. In their programme the socialists are requesting that the State share in partially privatised companies – like for example Hydro, Statoil and Telenor- be higher. They would like to develop a European policy more actively and are planning to create a Minister for European Affairs. "Norway is too servile with regard to the European Union," declared its chairperson Kristin Halvorsen who believes that the country must take better care of its own interests. Finally the Socialist Left Party pointed out its extreme opposition to drilling for oil and gas in the Barents Sea, a major point of discord with the Labour Party and the Centre Party.
The main event at the Labour Party congress (DNA) on 9th and 10th April was the alignment of the Social Democrats with the Norwegian Confederation of Unions (LO). Gerd-Liv Valla, chairperson of the union was elected to the central committee of the Labour Party along with Jan Davidsen, chairman of the Fagforbundet union. Although the latter has three hundred thousand members the Norwegian Confederation of Unions comprises 850,000 members i.e. 40% of the kingdom's working population. For the upcoming general elections it granted a record subsidy to the Labour party (13.3 million kroner, i.e. 1.6 million euro) and will also give 1.63 million kroner to the Socialist Left Party (i.e. 186,000 euro). Together with the chairperson of the Socialist Left Party, Kristin Halvorsen the Labour leader Jens Stoltenberg gave a speech at the national congress of the Norwegian Confederation of Unions that was held between 7th and 12th May in Oslo– this was a first in the history of the LO.
Gerd-Liv Valla maintained that half of her members would vote for the Labour Party versus a quarter during the elections on 10th September 2001. She said that she wanted a minister from a future leftwing government to come from the ranks of her union. Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik heavily criticised the union's return to the central committee of the main opposition party.
During the congress Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg invited the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party to form a government coalition with the DNA after the general elections of 12th September next. He maintained that a leftwing government would release additional funds for the poorest; Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik answered this by pointing out that in the budget the positions held by Labour and the government were very close (the social democrat party came to an agreement with the rightwing coalition on the budget last year); he warned the DNA against any excessive expenditure policy. Finally in his speech Jens Stoltenberg pointed to his pro-European position saying however that he would return to the party's congress to talk about this subject. According to the polls the Labour Party has the greatest number of voters against Norway's accession to the Union (33% in 2005 and 27.3% in 2004).
A week later the Liberal Party (V) met in Molde and committed itself to a reduction in taxes, the maintenance of a strong public sector and the strengthening of education (increase in the number of private schools) and the legalisation of marriage between homosexuals including their right to adoption. The Liberals also voted in favour (by a narrow majority) against Norway's entry into the European Union. Their chairman, Agriculture Minister Lars Sponheim said "51% against and 49% in favour".
The Popular Christian Party (KrF) held its congress between 22nd and 24th April in Tonsberg. Declaring itself the ‘party of values', the Prime Minister's party laid emphasis on the family (increase in family benefits for parents of children that did not attend nursery, an increase in parental leave to nine weeks, construction of new nurseries and the strengthening of existing structures) and religion (strengthening of religious instruction, increase in the number of private schools and the restriction of the right to abortion).
The Prime Minister highlighted his government's successes: strong economic growth, drop in unemployment and taxes and the improvement in the education sector. For several years Norway – mainly thanks to its oil reserves and that it manages with the greatest care- is the country with the highest standard of living in the world according to the ranking published by the UN Programme for Development. The country has also experienced continuous growth and the level of unemployment is below 4% of the working population (3.9% at the end of July 2005). "We are on the right road but we still have much to do," concluded the Prime Minister.
During this congress, Kjell Magne Bondevik announced that his party still had not taken a stance on the European issue and that it would not take one for the next year. He stressed that not being a European Union member enabled Norway to choose its policy but it was a disadvantage for the country not to be able to influence the decisions that were affecting it to an ever increasing degree.
Under the banner "Progress always" the Conservative Party (H) held its congress between 13th and 15th May. Its chairperson Erna Solberg, the present Minister for Communal Affairs laid emphasis on individual freedom and promised to launch a campaign in favour of Norway's entry into the European Union. Maintaining once again her desire to reduce taxes and to strengthen the sector of education, she decided to continue her co-operation with the Popular Christian Party and the Liberal Party.
In Alesund between 20th and 22nd May Carl Hagen presented his party (FrP) as a merger of left and right, supporting both solidarity and the freedom of choice. He hoped for a stricter policy in the fight against crime and a more severe immigration policy. The Progress Party would like to limit the number of "non-Western immigrant" entries to one thousand people per year. He committed himself to another reduction in taxes, for the privatisation of several national companies (post, railways, etc.), to greater choice in terms of education and better care for the elderly.
The Electoral Campaign
The parties of the government coalition present themselves as the representatives of freedom (their slogan is "the Freedom of Choice") placing the individual at the heart of their policy contrary to the leftwing parties who favour "State centralisation" according to the words employed by the chairman of the Liberal Party, Lars Sponheim. During a press conference in Stavern the Prime Minister presented his government's programme: strengthening of research that should comprise 3% of the GDP by 2010; increase the fight against crime; increase loans for education, nurseries and family allowance; improvement in the protection of the environment. Kjell Magne Bondevik said on 20th July in an interview with the newspaper Dagsavisen, that his personal political future depended on the results of the general elections to come maintaining that his party would not hang on to the ministerial seats if the balance between the three parties of the government coalition collapsed on 12th September.
The presentation of a list of one hundred and fifty-five points mid July on which the leaders of the three opposition parties shared the same points of view was not enough to convince the parties of the government coalition to stop highlighting the stream of discord between the various partners lying to the left. Hence the vice president of the Conservative Party and member of the parliamentary commission for Foreign Affairs, Inge Lonning, gave a detailed account of the disagreements in terms of foreign policy between the Labour Party and the Socialist Left Party. These two parties are fighting for Norway to withdraw from NATO and the European Economic Area (EEA) and favour the country's entry into the European Union contrary to the social democrat party. Inge Lonning asked for a "clarification of the leftwing coalition's foreign policy," thereby incurring the anger of Jens Stoltenberg who indicated that the parties on the left "had agreed on a foreign policy a long time ago basing themselves on membership of NATO and the EEA." The Conservative Party, via its president Erna Solberg, and the minister for Foreign Affairs Jan Peters, maintains that a leftwing government would endanger the foreign policy undertaken by Norway and would undermine the country's position within NATO.
Another debate at the heart of the campaign is the potential co-operation between the parties who are members of the present government and the Progress Party. For several months now Carl Hagen has said that it was intolerable for government coalition parties to receive the support of his party without granting the latter its rightful place. "The Progress Party is not demanding ministerial portfolios nor secretaries of States but real political influence. Conservative voters are of the same opinion. Are they wrong?" This was the question asked by Siv Jensen vice president of the "populist" party to the president of the Conservative Party, Erna Solberg on 14th May last. Opinion polls show that those who vote for the right are not as unanimous as the leaders of the political parties in refusing the entry of the Progress Party into government.
On 20th June last Carl Hagen said that he would not support another government led by Kjell Magne Bondevik. "A vote for the Progress Party in the autumn is above all support for the party's policy and it is also support for a non-socialist government without Kjell Magne Bondevik as Prime Minister," he wrote on 29th June last in the newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv. The populist leader believes that Dagfinn Hoybraten, the present president of the Popular Christian Party and Social Affairs Minister is the only true candidate for the position of Prime Minister. "It is the coalition parties who will decide on the candidate for this position and not Carl Hagen," answered the Prime Minister.
In an interview in the daily Dagsavisen Kjell Magne Bondevik has maintained again that he was prepared to ally himself with the Labour leader Jens Stoltenberg if Carl Hagen contributed towards the fall of the present government coalition. On 14th June the Prime Minister insisted on saying that he preferred to co-operate with the Labour Party rather than bring the Progress Party into government. "My main adversary is Jens Stoltenberg and not Carl Hagen," he did however say in an interview in the daily VG. "The Popular Christian Party is a party of the centre and we have to maintain our freedom to seek out agreements both with the right and the left," declared the Prime Minister during his party's congress on 21st April.
Lars Sponheim the president of the Liberal Party also excluded any other government coalition apart from the existing one due to the presence of Carl Hagen if the right wins the general elections. He did however say that the situation might develop when Siv Jensen took over the leadership of the "populist" party in 2006.
The Labour Party that dominated Norwegian political life for a long time is now part of the opposition and is in the lead in the polls – its leader Jens Stoltenberg is the Norwegians' favourite for the position of Prime Minister, (38% of the electorate say they are in favour versus 12.4% for Erna Solberg and 10.5% for Kjell Magne Bondevik). According to the same poll undertaken by MMI between 15th and 19th August for radio NRK and the daily Dagbladet, the three leftwing parties are due to win 53.4% together i.e. 96 seats in the Storting versus 25.9% for the present government coalition (41 MP's). The Progress Party is due to win 16.9% of the vote but would become the kingdom's second most popular party.
However nothing has yet been decided simply because of the condition set by the Progress Party demanding the departure of the Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in order to support a rightwing coalition in Parliament. The results of the elections will depend on the Progress Party's result and that of the Liberal Party (at present forecast to win slightly more than 3% of the vote according to the polls) and its ability to achieve the 4% suffrage mark nationally that will enable it and the present government coalition to win a greater number of seats.
On 12th September the Norwegians will also elect council representatives in 434 constituencies.
Reminder of the Norwegian general election results on 10th September 2001.
Participation rate: 74.5%
Source Embassy of Norway in France