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Norwegian Parliamentary Elections: A Certain Election with an Uncertain Outcome

Looking at the polls, it looks like the Norwegian parliamentary election on 13 September is already decided. The government led by the centre-right Conservative Party (H-EPP) of Prime Minister Erna Solberg is almost certain to lose its majority support in parliament. And the centre-left Labour Party (Ap-S&D) is likely to return to power with their leader Jonas Gahr Støre succeeding Solberg as prime minister, after an unprecedented eight years in opposition. However, with Ap’s potential coalition partners ruling each other out, much is unclear about the makeup of a hypothetical Gahr Støre government.

A not so united right-of-centre block

Solberg came to power in 2013 when her party with the Progress Party (FrP) of national-conservative European Parliamentary group ECR, liberal Venstre (V-RE) and centre-right Christian Democratic Party (KrF-EPP) won a parliamentary majority. These four parties form together a political block originally meant to oust the long-dominating Ap from power and currently competes for government with a left-of-centre block. This so-called block politics is common in Scandinavia as Swedish and Danish politics function in a similar way.

However, keeping the right-of-centre block united has proven to be difficult for Solberg. Conflicts were mainly between V, KrF that are closer to the political centre and FrP that is the most right-wing of the four parties. Divisions are so deep that KrF was close to switching sides and joining an Ap-led government in 2018. Finally in 2019 all four—H, FrP, V and KrF—sat together in one government. But only twelve months later FrP decided to quit the government over a conflict on allowing a female Norwegian ISIS-volunteer with her ill children to return to Norway. 

Chances for a reëlection of the right-of-centre block are slim. In Europe Elects’ polling average, the four parties have for a long time been stuck at around a combined 40%, almost 20 points behind the combined left-of-centre block. V and KrF risk to fall below the four per cent threshold needed for full proportional representation. FrP has lost some of its appeal after seven years in government and could hit its worst election result since 1993. And H’s gains made in the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic have slowly evaporated by now and the party has returned to pre-pandemic levels of support.

Wind in the sails for (part of) the left

Cause for the right struggling to stay afloat may be that the issues important to Norwegian voters are not typically favourable to them. According to Norstat, the environment and social inequality are topping voters’ concerns in this election. The benefitters of this phenomenon have been the parties on the left. But not all of them.

Ap has long dominated Norwegian politics, being the country’s largest party since 1927. But since losing power in 2013 and for the first time ever being in opposition for two consecutive legislatures after the 2017 election, Ap has fallen into an identity crisis. Its leader Gahr Støre has been criticised for being too centrist by those on the party’s left. Others think the party has been too pro-migration and urban-centred under his leadership. And as Ap was rather occupied with itself and its polling numbers reached record lows, it was the other parties of the left-of-centre block parties that profited from the incumbent government’s unpopularity: the agrarian Centre Party (Sp~RE), left-wing Socialist Left Party (SV-LEFT), Green Party (MDG-Greens/EFA) and self-identified communist Red Party (R~LEFT).

Initially, Sp had the best electoral fortunes of the block, its vote share increasing from 15% to to a more than 20% in early 2021 and briefly becoming the second most popular party after the Conservative Party in opinion polls. The agrarian Centre party has mainly profiled itself by opposing centralisation reforms that Solberg’s government enforced, taking voters from them. But Sp managed to take rural working class voters from Ap too. Sp is furthermore advocating to end Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and it is more conservative than the other parties in the left-of-centre block. However, as the current election campaign continued, Sp’s numbers have fallen back to the low tens. This fall back can be explained due to their positioning for the possible government formation that follows after the election.

The new government

As mentioned above, the block consisting of mostly leftist parties (Ap, Sp, SV, MDG and R) put together are, according to the opinion polls, almost certain of securing a parliamentary majority. Furthermore, a majority of only Ap, Sp and SV might be possible, the preferred coalition of Gahr Støre. These three parties already governed together for eight years between 2005 and 2013. Nevertheless, this time getting these three parties in the same government—or rather Sp and SV—will prove out to be much harder. 

Left-wing SV is one of the most ambitious parties on environmental issues, willing to phase out Norway’s oil production, progressive on issues concerning immigration and ethical issues. Sp is the exact opposite. And because the party mainly took voters from the right, Slagsvold Vedum, the leader of Sp, felt the urgency to pronounce a veto against sitting with SV in government, saying it wants to govern solely with the centre-left Ap. Sp even opened the door to cooperation with the centre-right H on issues like immigration and oil production.

Instead of solidifying Sp’s high polling numbers, this position led to voters fleeing left and right. Voters from the right, unconvinced of Sp not being dependent on left-wing parties returned to where they came from, mainly to FrP. Voters who were unpleasantly surprised by Sp opening the door to H, went leftwards to Ap. 

The environment, taking an even more central place in the campaign after the IPCC climate report was published, has on the other hand given momentum to parties ambitious on this issue. SV is on course to reach among their five best election result with a support of nudge below ten per cent in Europe Elects polling average, and is slowly closing on Sp that imposed a veto against them in government cooperation.

The liberal-centrist V that profiles itself as the most environmentalist in the right-of-centre block has seen its numbers outgrow the four per cent threshold and probably passing it on the election night. MDG and R are above the threshold as well in most polls, which would mean they get full proportional representation for the first time ever. However, with the current trend Ap’s dream coalition with Sp and SV might come short of a majority meaning MDG and/or R are needed as well.

Whether a party makes it over the set four per cent threshold has of course a great influence on its seat count. However, in Norway it does not automatically mean a party is left without any parliamentary representation. 150 out of the 169 seats in parliament are elected proportionally in 19 regional districts. The other 19 seats are meant to compensate for possible disproportionalities in order to ensure the seat distribution is as proportional as possible. It is mostly smaller parties that benefit from the compensation seats, considering it is harder for them to win seats in regional districts. But if a party falls below four per cent nationwide, it is not entitled to these compensating seats and are solely dependent on the comparatively harder task of winning proportional seats in a regional district in order to be represented in parliament. Generally a party below the threshold could realistically win one or two seats compared to the seven seats it would get when achieving the four per cent threshold.

A coalition needing support from MDG and/or R will prove out to become a headache to Ap, considering that uniting Sp and SV alone is already hard. Let alone trying to unite MDG, centred in urban Norway that wants to stop oil production as soon as possible, with agrarian Sp that wants to continue searching for oil and is very visible on rural versus urban issues. Or R that refuses to sit in government in the first place and calls itself ‘communist as Karl Marx meant it’. There is even talk of a minority government with only Ap trying to balance it all. The question is nonetheless whether the party, which might hit its worst election result in nearly a century, is capable of doing so.

An election that on the first look seems certain still has many uncertainties. Ap will most likely return to power after eight years in opposition. But the question is which parties will be making Gahr Støre Prime Minister and whether they would want to collaborate. It depends on which parties will make it over the four per cent electoral threshold, how low Ap will go and how close SV will get to Sp. However, it is always possible the polls are completely wrong and Solberg will be historic again: the first centre-right prime minister winning a third term.

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