Pyrrhic Victory?

By Thor Steinhovden
6 October 2017
NorwayNorway
After a close election, the right barely hangs on to power in Norway
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After a close election, the right barely hangs on to power in Norway.

In Norway’s recent national elections, the ruling coalition and its partners, led by the Conservative party, lost six seats but emerged with seven more seats in parliament than its left bloc rivals. While the Centre (Sp) and Socialist Left parties (SV) picked up an impressive 13 seats between them, the left bloc failed to carry the day due to a lacklustre performance by the Labour party (Ap).

Labour won 27.4% of the vote – a poor showing for a party that has grown accustomed to life in the mid-thirties – while Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives dropped 1.8% on its last election performance and the populist Progress party was down 1.2%. But in the Norwegian context this drop is not a terrible result for an incumbent, especially one on the right.

Strategic voting won the night

Throughout election night, the government at times seemed destined for the gallows as the Christian Democrats (KrF) and the Liberal party, whose votes in parliament the Conservatives rely on, struggled to make it past the 4% cut off to make it into parliament. KrF’s 4.2% vote share marks the party’s worst performance in a national election since 1936. But the Liberals, with 4.3% still celebrated making it above the threshold for two consecutive elections, something that has only happened twice since 1969. TV2, a broadcast network, later estimated that 1.5% of Liberal support came from Conservative voters who presumably sought to save the ruling coalition by ‘lending’ their votes to the smaller party.

Following the result, Solberg summoned her coalition partners for talks. The Conservatives formally govern with the Progress party, and during the last parliamentary term, the government was able to legislate by simply courting one of either the Christian Democrat or Liberal parties. But they now need both to reach the necessary 85 MPs for a majority. Both parties have made it clear that they want Ms Solberg to continue as prime minister, but will now take on different roles in supporting the government.

A Weaker Government

The Liberals seem poised to take seats in the government itself in the coming months. The Christian Democrats however recently left the talks, making it clear the party will support the government on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a formal coalition agreement.

The Christian Democrats’ role moving forward is particularly interesting for Norway’s political future. Its bedrock of support is older, religious voters, suggesting that the party’s leader, Knut Arild Hareide, would gain the most by supporting a government on the right. However, liberal voices in the party advocate a strategy of trying to reach younger voters who are likely to be further to the left.

By turning its back on a formal agreement with the government, the party will be free to explore alternative routes to power in the coming years. But since the government now needs both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats to form a majority in parliament, KrF will be forced to take a stand more often than before.

The Left Triumphs, Sort Of

Overall, the election proved positive for the smaller parties on the left. The Socialist Left party, declared a dead man walking by some, instead made gains with a campaign promise to fight inequality. The agrarian Centre party took advantage of a burgeoning urban-rural divide, brought on by centralising reforms favored by the right (and, at times, supported by Labour), and benefitted from a popular leader.

Labour in a shambles

While some credit the election outcome to a well-fought campaign by the right, the left would likely have gained power if Labour and prime ministerial candidate Jonas Gahr Støre had delivered more than a mediocre result. Støre seems safe for now, but the poor showing emboldened some party insiders to ruffle feathers and seemingly position themselves for a future leadership battle.

Unsurprisingly, the commentariat has been abuzz with analysis since election night. Some blame the party’s strategy of criticising the government for its poor handling of a recent economic downturn, just as more optimistic economic indicators started trickling in mid-summer. Others put Labour’s lacklustre performance down to their failure to present a clear coalition alternative, their attempt to court the Christian Democrats, and a loss of support among other parties on the left.

Some critics blame specific policies that failed to cut through, for example the lack of clarity surrounding the party’s proposed tax hike: the idea of a £1.4 million tax increase on high earners scared off voters who felt Labour’s plans were not supported by a clear enough programme for how the extra money would be spent. Others meanwhile point to the longer-term trend of drooping support for social democratic parties across Europe.

A poll of 10,000 Labour members revealed that 41% of even the party faithful believe Labour lacked a coherent vision for the future.

A Pyrrhic victory?

Støre and his Labour party, which had been polling as high as 40% earlier in the parliamentary term, could quickly rebound. While Solberg may have won this battle, it may prove a pyrrhic victory. With a severely weakened coalition, now without a formal framework to base its parliamentary majority on, Solberg is more vulnerable to infighting among the four parties. Four years is a long time and as her former conservative colleague David Cameron would be the first to tell her, just a year can make a big difference in the world of politics. But in order for Labour to capitalise, it will need to both present a clearer vision for Norway’s future and provide a more distinctive opposition to the Conservatives.

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