Despite doubts about far-right Progress Party, no talk of Norwegian ‘grand coalition’

siv jensen

Though the Høyre (‘Right,’ or Conservative Party) consistently leads polls as the party mostly likely to emerge with the most support in Norway’s September 9 elections, there’s still uncertainty about the future of Norway’s government.norway

That’s because while Conservative leader Erna Solberg is very likely to become Norway’s next prime minister and the Conservatives are widely tipped to win on September 9, the policies that her government will pursue will depend on the relative strength of the other center-right parties — notably the populist, anti-government, anti-immigration Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party), which remains the most controversial of Norway’s major parties.  If it joins the Conservatives in government as predicted, it will be the first time that the Progress Party has joined any government since it was founded in the 1970s.

If the election unfolds as polls predict, the Conservatives would win the largest share of the vote, around 32% and around 56 seats, which would be a historical victory against the Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party), which is polling around 29% and around 51 seats.  The Progress Party currently polls as the third-most popular party with around 14.5% support and around 27 seats.  That means that the next government will require some kind of coalition between two of those three parties.

So while it’s not surprising that tensions are emerging during the campaign between Solberg and Progress Party leader Siv Jensen (pictured above) and that it’s clear coalition negotiations among the Conservatives, the Progress Party and other center-right allies are likely to be incredibly difficult, it is perhaps surprising that no one has really suggested a ‘grand coalition’ between Labour and the Conservatives as an alternative.  While there’s no real precedent of ‘grand coalitions’ in recent Norwegian history, neither is there precedent for a Conservative-Progress government — both options would mark new ground for Norway.

Solberg is riding high in polls today after a long stint in the wilderness for the Conservatives and a rebranding exercise designed to pull the Conservatives more fully to the center and expand the party’s relevance beyond its traditional image as a party solely for Norway’s business elite.  That means that it has moved more closely to Labour’s position on many issues and it’s much closer to Labour than to the Progress Party on both economic and social issues alike.  Nonetheless, there’s curiously little discussion about a ‘grand coalition,’ even as Norwegians assume that the Conservative-Progress coalition is virtually a done deal.  That means that the Conservatives, a party that favors continuity over rupture, will govern with the Progress Party, which has historically favored rupture over continuity.  It will also likely mean that Jensen will become Norway’s next finance minister, an outcome that could scare moderate voters otherwise disposed to a Solberg-led government into supporting Labour instead.

If, for some reason, the Conservatives win the election and don’t form a coalition with Progress, because negotiations stall or because Progress’s vote collapses, the Conservatives would more likely form a coalition with two smaller center-right parties or even try a minority government before pairing up with Labour, not least of which because Labour prime minister Jens Stoltenberg has spent much of his campaign warning about all the damage that a right-wing government would cause to Norwegian society.

But on policy terms, there’s a lot to recommend a Norwegian ‘grand coalition.’  And if it can happen in Germany, Austria and Italy, why not in Norway too? 

Both the Conservatives and Labour have supported closer ties with the European Union and they are the only two parties to support Norway’s EU membership, while the Progress Party is ambivalent at best.  Both the Conservatives and Labour supported same-sex marriage equality in 2008, but the Progress Party opposed it.  While Solberg would push for lower taxes, she would largely leave Norway’s generous social welfare state in place, unlike the Progress Party.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Progress Party has called to scrap a fiscal rule that limits the government from spending more than 4% annually of the country’s $760 billion oil fund.  That’s perhaps the widest difference of all between the Progress Party and virtually the rest of the Norwegian political spectrum, including Labour, the Conservatives, and other smaller center-right parties.

Those allies include the Kristelig Folkeparti (Christian Democratic Party) and the small Venstre (Liberal Party).  The Christian Democrats polls between 4% and 6% and around 10 seats, while the Liberals poll around 4% to 5% with around nine seats, and they are natural allies to join a Conservative-led alliance — in many ways, they are more natural allies than the Progress Party.  Both Liberal leader Trine Skei Grande and Christian Democrat leader Knut Arild Hareide, moreover, have voiced concerns about the far right positions of the Progress Party, and they have formed a united front with the goal of, together, winning a larger bloc of seats than the Progress Party.  Hareide has argued that a Conservative-Progress coalition, without his party’s moderating influence, would be even worse than the current Labor-led government.  Indeed, Christian Democratic prime minister Kjell Magre Bondevik led the most recent center-right government in Norway from 1997 to 2005, a coalition that contained both the Liberals and, after 2001, the Conservatives as well.

While Skei Grande and Hareide have attacked Jensen, Jensen herself has criticized Solberg for tempering the Conservative election platform to attract Labour voters.

Despite all the talk of the Progress Party as the next government’s kingmaker, it actually is likely to lose seats from its high-water mark in the September 2009 election, when it won nearly 23% of the vote and 41 seats, which makes it the second-largest party in Norway’s parliament today.  But the party’s association with mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, a one-time party member, whose 2011 attacks were the deadliest in Norwegian history, helped push the Progress Party to massive local election losses.  The Progress Party has regained ground from 2011 as it’s become clear that its ties to Breivik were marginal at best, but there’s still plenty of hesitation about the party, even among its ostensible center-right allies.

That’s not just due to controversial anti-immigration and anti-Muslim positions, but its role as a party that, more than any other party in Norwegian politics, hopes to dismantle the broad social welfare state.  While Jensen has worked to bring the party into the Norwegian political mainstream, she has warned of creeping ‘Islamization’ in Norway, challenged the notion of climate change and continues to oppose same-sex marriage, all positions far to the right of Solberg’s Conservatives.

Up to eight parties might ultimately win seats in election — the 169 seats in Norway’s parliament, the Stortinget, are elected through proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, with certain ‘levelling’ seats held back so that all parties that reach a 4% electoral threshold have seats in the parliament.

Stoltenberg remains relatively popular despite his push for a third consecutive term, and historically, Labour has emerged in every single election since 1927 as the party with the greatest number of seats in the Stortinget.  That means there’s plenty of time for Stoltenberg to narrow the gap and emerge as the top party yet again next month, especially in light of the strong ground game Labour is likely to deploy on election day.  If he does, he could well pursue his own minority government or, conceivably, a ‘grand coalition’ with the Conservatives or even a wide coalition among his two current leftist allies, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.  But even if Stoltenberg falls, Labour will still wield significant power after the election as the second-most powerful party.

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