By Peter Egge Langsæther (University of Oslo)
For the last eight years, Norway has been governed by various right-wing coalitions led by the Conservative party and their leader, Prime Minister Erna Solberg. As in many other countries, the main governing party received a decisive boost to its support as the corona pandemic threw Norway into the most urgent crisis it had faced since the second world war. However, as the political agenda normalised when vaccines made the pandemic less salient, the cost of ruling became apparent also for the Conservatives. Along with the other major right-wing party, the borderline radical right Progress Party, they turned out to become the major losers of the election – despite most Norwegian voters being quite content with Solberg’s handling of the pandemic. So far, less than 900 corona deaths have been registered in Norway. Yet a Solberg win would be most extraordinary. Norwegian Prime Ministers rarely if ever sit for three terms, pandemic or no pandemic. The fall of the Progress Party was also more or less predictable. In the previous election in 2017, their primary issue – immigration – was on top of the Norwegian agenda following the refugee crisis. By 2021, voters no longer considered the issue important, as the pandemic essentially stopped most immigration to Norway.
Add to these losses the newsworthy fact that the Christian Democratic party for the first time since 1936 fell below the electoral threshold, and the disaster for the bourgeois parties is near complete. The Christian Democrats have been ripe with internal conflict over the decision to support the right-wing governments while the Progress Party took part in it. Indeed, this conflict eventually led to the formation of a new party that probably contributed to the Christian Democrats falling just below the electoral threshold. Finally, their leader was involved in a minor scandal in the middle of the campaign, having obtained free housing from parliament on questionable (although probably not strictly speaking illegal) grounds. The only right-wing party to perform well was the small Liberal party, which seems to have capitalised on the climate agenda, and potentially on their support for a drug policy reform inspired by Portugal’s decriminalization.
The near-collapse of the parties of the right leaves no doubt: The new government will be formed by Jonas Gahr Støre and his centre-left Labour party, leaving all the Scandinavian countries to be ruled by Social Democrats. His party performed poorly in the elections, falling another percentage point after an already poor showing in 2017. At 26.3%, the Social Democrats had their worst election results in 20 years, although better than polls suggested. Combined with the return to power, the poor result is still a win for a hard-tried Labour party.
The change of government relies on the considerable growth of the other opposition parties, securing a strong left-wing majority in Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament. This was most notably the case for the Centre party, a party defending rural interests. The Centre Party has grown tremendously in recent years as it has mounted the strongest opposition against the centralizing reforms of the Conservative governments. These reforms have been highly unpopular in certain regions and rural areas. The Centre Party thus ended up with 13.6% of the votes. While less than polls may have suggested in the months leading up to the election, this is their best showing since the battles over EU membership (which they firmly oppose) in the early 1990s.
Furthermore, the two radical left parties combined grew significantly in a campaign dominated by some of their core issues related to climate and social inequalities following the pandemic. The most radical of them, Red, is on track to obtain its best result ever at almost 5%, while their somewhat less radical sister party SV also did well at almost 8%. Particularly the latter party brands itself as a red-green party, combining calls for increased redistribution with a strong environmentalist platform.
Among the more surprising results, the Green party seems not to have been able to fully capitalise on the persuasive salience of the climate issue. The ICPP Climate Report announced “code red” for humanity in the middle of the election campaign, lifting climate and oil issues high on the election agenda. The Green Party, which entered parliament as late as 2013, rose on the polls and obtained a record 3,000 new members in the period following the report. They were predicted to finally cross the electoral threshold by some margin, giving them access to the all-important levelling seats. However, they eventually ended up at 3.96%, falling only a few thousand votes short of the threshold. It is not evident how to interpret this result. Despite some growth in support and their best election so far, the failure to cross the electoral threshold is a disappointment for the party to be sure, considering the importance of climate issues on the agenda. If they cannot succeed under these circumstances, then when will they?
The end result of the election is a decline of the right and a rise of the left, as expected after eight years of right-wing rule. However, the election solidifies the trend we have seen across Western Europe of increased political fragmentation, in this case particularly on the left. Both the major parties lost votes, while several of the minor ones strengthened. In addition, a single-issue party campaigning for a hospital in Northern Norway entered parliament with one seat. The increased fragmentation may lead to problems when trying to build majority coalitions. In this sense, there is a parallel to the recent Dutch elections, as analysed by Ingrid van Biezen in this very same blog.
Labour’s preferred government coalition of SV and the Centre party (with whom they governed in 2005-2013) was long threatened by the rise of Red and the Greens, as they risked depending on these parties to obtain majority support for their budgets. However, Labour’s preferred coalition did eventually obtain a majority in parliament.
Nevertheless, it is not certain that this coalition is tenable. While SV has been positive, the Centre Party has explicitly said it does not want to govern with SV, citing the major differences between the parties on a number of issues, not least related to climate and oil policies. All three parties have committed to the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, slashing emissions by 50-55% by 2030. However, the two parties disagree on how to get there. For instance, while SV wants to stop searching for new oil fields, the Centre Party does not. And even if the Centre party accepts SV, it may be challenging for SV to face criticism from Red and the Greens over its necessary compromises on equality and climate policies in such a coalition. Despite its growth, SV would be the junior partner.
If the parties cannot reach an agreement in the coming weeks, Norway may face a minority government based on Labour and the Centre Party, or even Labour ruling alone. Despite some important exceptions in recent years, minority governments are in fact the most common form of governing in Norway.
What is certain is that Norway will have a new Prime Minister. The voters seem to have demanded more redistribution, an end to centralization reforms, and perhaps a transition to a greener economy. The question is how the new Prime Minister will deliver on these issues – and with whom.
Photo source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/14/norways-leftwing-opposition-wins-election-in-a-landslide