25/08/2009 - Analysis
Around 3 million Norwegians are being called to ballot on 14th September next to renew the 169 members of the National Parliament. 3,682 candidates from 24 parties are running in the election. Early voting started on 1st July last. On 15th August 52,984 people had already fulfilled their civic duty (473,000 people in all voted early for the previous general elections on 12th September 2005).
The Progress Party's (FrP) result and its possible entry into government are the main issues in this election. The elections in 2005 were won by the left forces led by the Labour Party (DNA) and which for the first time in the kingdom's history ran united before the electorate. On this occasion the Progress Party (far right) became the country's second most important political party (and the leading opposition party) easily pulling ahead of the other parties on the right. The coalition formed after the election by Labour leader Jens Stoltenberg was the first majority government in 20 years. No other political party had managed to achieve an absolute majority in Parliament in over 40 years (1961).
During the local elections that took place on 17th October 2007 the Labour Party won with 30.8% of the vote increasing the score it achieved in 2001 by 3.8 points and thereby strengthening its electoral base. The parties on the right also improved their scores (together they won 31.1% of the vote, i.e. 2.7 points more), the People's Christian Party came out ahead in Bergen and Stavanger. The Socialist Left Party was the major loser in these local elections; it won 6.5% of the vote, a decline of 6.5 points. The Progress Party won 18.5% of the vote (+0.6 points).
The Norwegian Political System
The Storting is the only Chamber in the Norwegian Parliament. It has 169 members elected for 4 years by proportional representation according to a modified Sainte-Lagüe method. For the election the kingdom is divided into 19 counties that form 19 constituencies electing between 5 (Finnmark and Sogn og Fjordane) and 17 representatives (Oslo) according to their size and number of inhabitants (the census takes place every eight years). MPs are elected by constituency, 19 (one per constituency) are appointed nationally and come from the political parties which are under represented in the constituencies. These seats are called compensatory seats. A political party has to win at least 4% of the votes cast nationally to be able to take part in the distribution of compensatory seats.
Norwegian voters are allowed to modify the order of the candidates on the electoral lists. However since a candidate has to win more than half of the electorate's votes for his result to influence the distribution of seats the order of candidates decided on by the party is often still the most decisive. Only the political parties registered before 31st March can take part in the general elections on 14th September.
After the vote the Storting divides into two Chambers; the Odelsting (that rallies ¾ of the members of the Storting) and the Lagting (the remaining quarter) which depending on the agenda meet separately or together.
The Storting has one particular feature which makes it unique in Europe: it cannot be dissolved. Disagreement on the part of the government coalition has led to the resignation of the team in office three times already in Norway's history (1986, 1989 and 2000). The government is then replaced by minority governments without the organization of any further general elections.
At present 7 political parties are represented in the Storting:
- the Labour Party (DNA), led by outgoing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the kingdom's leading party due to the number of members it has – it has 61 MPs;
- the Progress Party (FrP), founded on 8th April 1973 and led by Siv Jensen since 2006 is the far right populist party. Since the general elections on 12th September 2005 it has been the kingdom's second most important party and has 38 seats;
- the Conservative Party (H) is an opposition party chaired by former Communal Affairs Minister, Erna Solberg and it has 23 MPs;
- the Socialist Left Party (SV) founded in 1973 and member of the outgoing government is led by outgoing Finance Minister, Kristin Halvorsen and has 15 seats;
- the Centre Party (Sp) also belongs to the outgoing government. Formerly an agrarian party it was founded in 1920 and is chaired by Liv Signe Navarsete; it has 11 seats;
- the People's Christian Party (KrF) is an opposition party led by Dagfinn Hoybraten and has 11 seats;
- the Liberal Party (V), founded in 1884, is Norway's oldest party. Chaired by former Agriculture Minister, Lars Sponheim, it has 10 seats.
The Elections Issues
Norway, the world's 8th biggest oil and 3rd most important natural gas exporter is also one of the world's richest. In 1990 the Storting created the government's Oil Fund (which became the Global Pension Fund in 1996). This fund, whose main source lies in revenue from the oil sector invested according to strict ethical rules (companies under suspicion of infringing humanitarian principles or Human Rights, or those which are corrupt or which damage the environment are excluded), is estimated at 300 billion euros, is a savings mechanism designed to provide for the country's future social spending (notably healthcare and pensions expenditure which, due to an ageing population, will probably increase sharply over the next few years).
The Norwegians, like all European States, who are suffering from the international economic crisis, sometimes feel that they do not benefit from their country's entire wealth and from time to time express their discontent. They are exasperated for example by the poor quality of their public services, notably the schools and healthcare services, they oppose the reduction in staff in these sectors complaining of the waiting time to access care, the lack of policemen and even a lack of places in retirement homes; they do not understand why they have to suffer high petrol prices and taxation on products made from oil.
The economy is due to contract by 1% in 2009 for the first time in 30 years before recovering growth the following year (+0.50% GDP growth planned). Unemployment, at present lying at 3% is due to rise to 3.75% at the end of the year – around 5000 people lose their jobs each month – and to 4.75% in 2010. In the 1st quarter of 2009 the number of company bankruptcies increased by 72%. Provisional figures published on 20th August last by the Central Statistics Bureau (SSB) were however better than planned since the GDP increased by 0.3% in the 2nd quarter of 2009 and the country has officially come out of recession.
Legally the government cannot take more than 4% of oil revenues placed in the pensions' fund to balances its accounts.
On 4th August the Labour Party announced its 7 goals for the next legislature: to give priority to work, trade and industry; to strengthen knowledge; to enhance the country's value; to improve healthcare services; to step up the fight for security and against crime; to focus on culture and to fight against climate change, as well as to aim for international solidarity.
It is campaigning for a renewal of the outgoing red-green government coalition comprising the PS, the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party. Using the fear on the part of some of the electorate of a possible entry into government by the Progress Party, the head of government has warned the Norwegians who do not vote for the government parties of the possibility of witnessing the rise to power of a coalition rallying the Conservative Party, and the Progress Party, which would be the most likely option in the event of a rightwing victory. "A government such as this would apply an experimental policy that would lead to economic insecurity," said Jens Stoltenberg. In a column published mid-August in the newspaper the Dagsavisen, Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, a Labour Party candidate in these elections warned against the Progress Party's policy that would be tantamount to destroying "the Norwegian model of society". Just two weeks before the election the Prime Minister has chosen to mobilise the Labour electorate. "Our main opponent is the sofa, i.e. those who do not turn out to vote," he said.
"It is clear that there will not be another government without the participation of the Progress Party," says its leader, Siv Jensen who said that her party would not support a government rallying the rightwing opposition parties in which she had not been invited to take part in, contrary to what she did in 2001 when she supported the right coalition led by People's Christian Party Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik. According to Siv Jensen an alliance between the Conservative and Progress Parties is the most plausible alternative to the present government coalition. "The electoral battle between the Progress Party and the Labour Party has started," she repeats. The FrP became the country's leading political party in June 2008 according to the polls. Just over one year ago with 31% of voting intentions it was ahead of the Labour Party credited with 26.6% in a survey by Norstat. In November Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's party the PS, did however forge ahead in terms of voting intentions.
The Progress Party is undertaking a campaign that focuses on two themes: the management of energy revenues and immigration. In favour of reducing taxes (it is promising 5 billion € in tax rebates during the next legislature 2009-2013), it is the only party that wants to use oil and gas revenues to improve the Welfare State and the country's infrastructures whereas the other parties are playing the card of budgetary discipline and are not planning to spend money from oil income, since they believe that an increase in spending would inevitably lead to an overheating of the economy and a rise in inflation.
With regard to immigration the Progress Party is suggesting a new code based on the laws in application in Denmark. These include a reduction in immigration (not more than 100 political refuges per year would be accepted into the kingdom) and a selection of immigrants depending on their origins and the level of integration on the part of citizens sharing the same nationality already living in Norway. The illiterate, Muslims and those without income would be refused entry into the country. Siv Jensen, who has contributed to diminishing the party's anti-immigration attitude since she took over chairmanship in 2006, also indicates that her party would only accept entry into government if her party is granted the position of Immigration and Integration Minister. The Progress Party which says it supports religious freedom would like to enhance the control over mosques and Koranic schools and fight against "the hidden Islamisation" of the country. Like other European states Norway receives a number of immigrants which increases every year. Many are from Iraq and Pakistan but half of the foreigners living in the kingdom are Swedish.
The Socialist Left Party quite rightly fears that the general election will turn into a battle between the Progress Party and the Labour Party. It is campaigning on environmental issues, wage equality and foreign policy issues. It established the goal of winning 10% of the vote.
The diversity of the rightwing opposition parties is an advantage for the Progress Party. The Liberal Party, the People's Christian Party and the Conservative Party hope to form a government coalition without the far right. Given the latest polls this seems difficult if not impossible. Liberal Party leader, Lars Sponheim, and Dagfinn Hoybraten of the People's Christian Party have both said that their parties would not form a coalition with the Progress Party. The chairwoman of the Conservative Party, Erna Solberg, is more subtle and is trying to "bridge" the gap between these two parties and the Progress Party. Convinced that victory is possible for the moderate right but frustrated at the lack of cooperation between the three parties that make it up Erna Solberg says, "We need a strong Conservative Party to succeed." "One vote for Siv Jensen is one for Jens Stoltenberg," she comments stressing that the Progress Party is in fact trying to prevent the formation of a rightwing government and is preparing the way for four additional years of Labour government. Erna Solberg said to the newspaper Aftenposten at the beginning of July that she preferred Siv Jensen to Jens Stoltenberg as head of Government. Taxes, education and transport are the main themes in the party's campaign.
Lars Sponheim accused the Conservatives of "giving in to the populist forces of the Progress Party" since they are planning an increase in budgetary spending. The liberal leader is accusing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of frightening the electorate when he says that only a government rallying the Conservative Party and the Populist Party could replace the coalition in office. The liberal leader is optimistic and confident that the three rightwing parties will together win a greater number of seats than the Progress Party.
According to the latest polls the Labour Party is due to win the elections on 14th September with around 30% of the vote followed by the Progress Party with 27%, the Conservative Party (14%), the Socialist Left Party (8%), the Liberal Party (6%), the People's Christian Party (5.5%) and the Centre Party (5%). The results of the "small" parties should therefore be decisive for the formation of the next government coalition.
Political Science Professor at the University of Osla, Hanne Marthe Narud maintains that Norway is drawing close to a two party system (Labour Party/Progress Party). The percentage of votes lower than that in 2005, with which the polls credit the Conservative Party, the fact that the People's Christian Party may lose a great number of voters and finally that the Liberal Party and the Centre Party may fall below that 4% threshold of votes cast supports this theory, which if confirmed during the general elections, may lead to polarization in Norway.