Norway has just elected a new Prime Minister. Erna Solberg, the convivial centre-right leader that has governed the country for eight years, is now on her way out. Her coalition — which included the populist Progress party, the liberals and the Christian democrats — took a heavy beating last night, losing almost ten percentage points since the 2017 election. It clearly didn’t help that Solberg is still popular around the country and is reckoned to have managed the pandemic well. Norwegian opinion has been moving to the left for quite some time. Now the voters have painted the country red.
Jonas Gahr Støre, the leader of the Labour party, will be the new Prime Minister. He’s a safe pair of hands. A former aide to Gro Harlem Brundtland, PM from 1981 to 1996, he was also foreign minister in the government of Jens Stoltenberg, the current Nato chief.
But while his experience and cognitive qualities are roundly recognised, Gahr Støre doesn’t really go down well with voters outside the main metropolises. Unlike the now-ousted Solberg, he is less popular than his party. He’s a wealthy technocrat with a somewhat patrician personality. A good part of his career outside politics has been spent among international aid donors and in the Geneva headquarter of the World Health Organisation.
What makes him tick isn’t so much the problems of Norway as problems across the world. And while Norway is proud of its internationalist outlook, it is also more parochial than most other western nations. Earlier this year, there was even loose talk about ditching Gahr Støre at the party’s spring conference. He beat his doubters’ expectations, but his party still lost support in yesterday’s election, losing a seat. The result is more a loss for Solberg than a sign of widespread support for Labour.
Step forward the true winner: Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, the leader of Norway’s Centre party. Together with some other small parties — the Greens, the Socialist party and the extreme-left Red party — his agrarian politics took voters from the big establishment parties. He will now be number two in the government.
Gahr Støre is obviously relieved that he doesn’t need to bring parties from the fringe left into the government but his two coalition partners — the Centre and Socialist parties — will still cause him headaches. The Centre party is the guardian of Norway’s lavish spending on farmers and remote regions — and for them, there’s never quite enough subsidies flowing from Oslo.
The Centre party is also on a collision course with Gahr Støre’s other coalition partner, the Socialist party. This leftist party is a mixture of Oslo hipsters and public sector employees that takes a radical approach to climate change and want Norway to stop drilling for more oil and gas. By contrast, the centrist agrarian Slagsvold Vedum has a routine of ridiculing the green and veggie purism of the new left. He is acutely aware that stopping the petroleum cash flow will eventually drain the budget for farmers and regional subsidies. However, the two junior coalition parties have a common front against Gahr Störe’s Labour on one issue: their intensive opposition to Norway’s agreement with the EU. They both want to leave the European Economic Agreement.
Gahr Støre will manage these conflicts: the country won’t leave its settlement with the EU and nor will it ban new oil and gas projects. Norwegian politics are often like a parallel universe where the normal rules of western engagement don’t apply. This election campaign has often felt like a debate between Jeremy Corbyn, Greta Thunberg and one of those funny hippies from Extinction Rebellion.
They have all been saying the same things, albeit with different degrees of alarmism and silliness. They all think that Norway has a magic money tree that can finance all sorts of grand projects — and, worst of all, it’s partly true. The country’s oil fund amounts to about a trillion pounds and the country simply does not need to care that much about boosting jobs and growth to afford new government spending. Erna Solberg tapped the fund for a record amount during the pandemic. Gahr Støre will soon beat when it comes to economic frivolity.
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