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Election without winners

By Dr Jan Erik Grindheim, President of the European Movement Norway ///

After eight years of red-green rule with Jens Stoltenberg from the Labour party as prime minister, a change is underway in Norwegian politics. Erna Solberg, his main opponent from the Conservative party, will most probably take over the wheel after today´s parliamentary elections.

After leading the party to two defeats, Ms Solberg turned round its image in the 2009 local elections and finally paid tribute to her nickname “Stjerne-Erna”, or “Erna the star”,given to her after she became party leader in 2004 and parliamentary leader in 2005. Late surveys double the support of the Conservative party from around 15 per cent in 2005 to 25-30 per cent today.

“Erna the star” is not her only nickname, however. In 2005, Ms Solberg wrote on her own blog – Why do they call me Jern-Erna when I want to be called Stjerne-Erna? “Jern-Erna” means “Iron Erna”, a tag she got after serving as local government minister from 2001 to 2005 in charge of Norway´s immigration policy.

During her days as minister in the centre-right government 2001-2005, Ms Solberg introduced what she called a more “strict but fair” immigration policy by putting pressure on public authorities to speed up asylum processes and making the whole immigration system more efficient.

Efficiency is a mantra to the 52-year old politician with a background from university studies in comparative politics, economics and sociology. That includes solid knowledge ofstatistics, which has shown useful in her endless debates with the prime minister, a respected economist whose first and only full-time job outside politics was with Statistics Norway.

Both Ms Solberg and Mr Stoltenberg, most of the time referred to as Erna and Jens by the Norwegian public, are first and foremost interested in figures and in keeping public expenditure down to avoid the rock solid oil-fuelled Norwegian economy to crowd out private initiatives and industries.

The only reason for them not to form a grand coalition is the history and traditions of the two parties dating back to the class struggles of the 1930s. They both favour economic growth, stability and good labour market and industry relations, and in fact also a full European Union membership for Norway. But they disagree on tax issues and public spending.

Whereas Mr Stoltenberg wants higher taxes and a bigger public sector, Ms Solberg wants to cut tax and use private actors in the production of public goods and services. Privatisation is no issue, however; the most extreme centre-right policy instrument the Conservative leader will opt for is Public Private Partnership.

Compared to the 18 other political parties in Norway, of which only seven are represented in the outgoing parliament and maybe only four or five will pass the four per cent threshold for the next, most voters will probably not see much of a difference between Conservative and Labour if one of them chose to go for a minority government on its own.

When Stoltenberg´s red-green coalition of Labour, socialists and the agrarians in the Centre party took power in 2005, it was the first majority government in twenty years. Hence, the big issue in this year´s campaign has been whether Ms Solberg will form a blue-blue coalition with the Progress party chaired by Siv Jensen, a centre-right coalition with the liberal party Venstre (the Left) and the Christian People´s party, or a four party coalition with all three of them.

Ms Jensen´s political heroine is Margaret Thatcher, an odd figure in Norwegian political culture. Until quite recently, as the non-socialist bloc gained popularity after eight years of red-green rule, neither the Liberal party nor the Christian People´s party wanted to sit around the King´s table with the Progress party even though it is the second largest party in the present parliament.

Due to variations in cleavage structure, electoral systems,and political traditions, the Norwegian multi-party system is very different from the British two-party (or two-and-a-half-party) system. In Norway, the bourgeoisie side of politics is most commonly referred to as non-socialist, insofar as the Liberal party, the Christian People´s party and the Centre party define themselves as the centre of Norwegian politics.

These are all small parties with five to six per cent of the votes, whereas the Progress party might end up with 15-16 per cent against close to 30 per cent for the Conservatives and Labour, that is, more than 60 per cent of the total number of votes. The Conservatives and Labour are typical catch-all parties in the middle of the political spectrum. But as long as they love to hate each other, they prefer to either rule in minority or centre-right/centre-left coalitions instead of a grand coalition.

From the majority of the voter´s political position, today´s parliamentary election in Norway could be an election without winners. Tactical politics and negative campaigning have dominated the political debates ahead of the election. When the results are ready, a centre-right coalition is the most probable if the latest opinion polls hold true. For the median voter it is anyway blue.

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