A chaotic campaign

By Sigrid Hagerup Melhuus
6 September 2017
NorwayNorway
One week away from the Norwegian election, the likely winner is anybody's guess
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On 11 September, Norwegians will choose their next parliament and government. One week ahead of the election, diverging polling results have bewildered experts and commentators. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess which parties will end up governing Norway in the coming four years.

Traditionally a social democratic stronghold, Norway has had right-wing rulers for the last four years. The last national elections left the Conservative party in government, in a formal coalition with Norway’s populist, right-wing Progress party.

Only a few years prior to the election in 2013, other parties shunned the Progress party due to its populist nature, its irresponsible economic policy and its rhetoric on issues concerning immigration and religion. This changed for the first time in 2013, when the Conservatives invited the party to join its coalition.

The two parties represent a minority in parliament, but negotiated a parliamentary agreement with the Liberal party and the Christian Democratic party after the last election. The four parties together form a majority and agree on yearly budgets. Apart from this, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats act on their own accord, and at times look more like opposition parties than supporting partners, but they have kept the most rightwing government any Nordic country has seen in power since the Second World War for four years.

During this reign, the Norwegian economy and society have gone through major changes. In 2014, the falling price of oil resulted in an extensive restructuring of the oil and gas sector, the country’s largest industry. Thousands lost their jobs, followed by sluggish economic growth. Inequality has been on the rise for quite some time, hitting low-income families especially hard. Today one in ten children live in relative poverty or at risk of poverty in Norway.

The government amplified the inequality trend by cutting taxes for the richest minority. Furthermore, in parts of the labour market we have seen an increased divide between those who are in permanent jobs with income growth, and those who are not. The unemployment rate has dropped as of late, but labour force participation continues to decline.

Thus far, the election has centred on pretty much anything but issues. Rather, we have seen a chaotic campaign, reflecting both the strong and different interests of the parties, and the changed and fragmented media landscape. Among those who have set the agenda, directly and indirectly, is the minister for immigration and integration, Sylvi Listhaug, who represents the populist Progress party.  During her two years in the job, her controversial statements about the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, Islam and other topics, have sparked a lot of debate in Norway, and even gained attention internationally.

As a result, the Christian Democrats have campaigned on the promise of a new coalition made up of themselves, the Conservative party and the Liberal party, excluding the Progress party. Their wish to exclude the Progressive party is due to the gap between the Christian Democrats emphasis on international solidarity and the Progress party’s at times downright hostile rhetoric towards foreigners both in Norway and abroad.

The media coverage of Listhaug in many ways mirrors the coverage of Donald Trump. Her statements are met by a solid amount of counterarguments and analyses, but she still receives an enormous amount of air time and coverage. She is the third most cited politician in Norway after the two candidates for the job of prime minister.

The centre-right block’s chance of success depends strongly on how the Liberal party fares electorally. They may be Norway’s oldest political party, but over recent years have had a long and hard decline. Today the Norwegian Liberals are struggling to survive after four years of supporting the government. In order to compete for the non-constituency seats-at-large, parties must get more than 4 per cent of the national vote. If the Liberal party falls under that threshold, the centre-right block will most likely lose its majority.

Following the former social democratic leader Jens Stoltenberg’s move to Brussels to take the reins at NATO, his successor Jonas Gahr Støre is taking his first shot at winning back power for the Labour party. In May 2017, the party enjoyed a whopping 33 per cent support in the polls, and the left-wing block look set for a seemingly clear majority. Since then, however, the race has tightened considerably. By August, the Labour party had dipped to an average of 27 per cent, which is a disastrous result for them. As a result, several polls show the centre-right block maintaining its majority.

The agrarian Centre party and the Socialist Left party are expected to increase their share of the votes. Their success might be explained by the issues they are highlighting in the campaign. The Centre party is popular among those voters dissatisfied with the current government’s policy for increased centralisation and urbanisation in Norway. The party has traditionally represented voters in agriculture, but to an increasing extent is also gaining wider support from voters who live outside the large and growing cities in Norway. The Socialist Left party’s expected success comes from their systematic focus on increased inequality, a development that many Norwegians fear. Furthermore, the Green party, which had its national breakthrough in the parliamentary election in 2013, where they gained a seat in parliament for the first time, is also expected to increase its share of the vote. In addition, the extreme-left Red party might make it into parliament. All these parties have announced that they will support a Labour party government or that they will not support a government with the Progress party.

The diverging polls have dominated the headlines, stealing attention from substantive debate as the networks and media outlets announce new poll results seemingly every day. The party leaders spend a disproportionate amount of their time commenting on the results and the consequences for their strategy – rather than talk about their policy ideas. In particular, the decline in the polls for Labour and its leader has dominated the headlines, regardless of the fact that the Conservative party, that currently holds the position of prime minister, is also performing poorly in the polls.

The Labour party are accused by the right-wing block of constructing its campaign around a negative narrative about Norway’s economic situation. The voters do not recognise this bleak picture, the governing parties argue, referring to improving economic indicators in recent months. Støre’s reply is that the current prime minister, Erna Solberg from the Conservative party, is responsible for transforming Norway into a harsher society. To support his claim, Støre has pointed to increased inequality between rich and poor, and the right-wing populist rhetoric dominating the debates on migration and religion. Faced with growth in poverty rates, a lack of opportunities for an increasing numbers of Norwegians outside the labour market, the right-wing block has tried to focus attention on value-related debates.

One explanation for Labour’s dipping numbers may be the increased number of voters who do not know which party to vote for: at the beginning of August, a staggering 800,000 voters out of 3,750,000 had not decided on a party. Four weeks later, the number had increased to over 900,000 voters, a highly unusual development during the last weeks of the election campaign. According to Frank Aarebrot, a professor in comparative politics at the University of Bergen, Labour has been hit hardest by this shift.

Voters are said to be confused, maybe because of the fragmentation of the media landscape we have seen in Norway in recent years. As in many countries, traditional media is facing heightened competition from the digital media, and the parties are using social media channels more actively. The sheer plethora of small and large media outlets covering the election makes it more difficult for the parties to reach a majority of the voters with the same message.

Ahead of the election next Monday, no one dares to predict how the night will end. However, it is possible to predict how posterity will record the parliamentary election in 2017: a chaotic campaign.

Photo credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com