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Making Sense Of The Norwegian General Election

15/09/2017 10:25
Ismail Akin Bostanci via Getty Images

Heading into September 11th's general election in Norway, one of the tightest races in recent memory remained too close to call. With both Labour and the ruling Conservative Party constantly swapping places at the top of the opinion polls during the final week of campaigning, the result remained on a knife edge. Labour were pushing hard for a way back to power after four years in opposition, whilst the Conservatives were aiming to become the first right-wing government in three decades to win a second term in office.

In the end, a victory for the Conservative-led right bloc means that, on paper, little has changed, but it doesn't mean there aren't plenty of important points to be examined and lessons to be learnt on both ends of the political spectrum.

For Labour, the general election can only be viewed as an absolute disaster. The centre-left party saw their share of the vote drop more dramatically than any of their opponents, culminating in their lowest level of support (27.4%) since the dark days of 2001. It marked only the second time since 1924 that their share of the vote had fallen below 30%, leaving them desperately short of the number of seats needed to oust the Conservatives from government.

As recently as the start of this year, things were looking rather good for Labour. Their level of support was comfortably hovering around 35%, with the Conservatives trailing them by at least 10% in most opinion polls. They seemed on course to return to power in a coalition with the Socialist Left and Centre parties to form a left-wing government for the fourth time since 2000. It wasn't to be, however, as an uninspiring campaign led by leader Jonas Gahr Støre saw their advantage evaporate, allowing the Conservatives to pull off a last-minute victory to cling on by the narrowest of margins.

As has been the case across Europe in recent years, social democratic parties are struggling to deal with being attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, and that was no different in Norway this week. Støre's moderating influence (coupled with his courting of the Christian Democrats as potential coalition partners) had led to criticism being levelled at Labour from the left, resulting in an increase in support for the two other left-wing parties. The Socialist Left, formerly part of the governing Red-Green coalition between 2005 and 2013, enjoyed a four-seat increase, whilst the Red Party, a young group formed from a merger between various communist and revolutionary socialist organisations, became the first far-left party to win a seat in the Norwegian parliament since 1993.

That the Reds' success came in Oslo is no surprise. Both they and the Socialist Left Party enjoyed vote share increases of around 3% there, with Labour falling to their lowest share of the vote in the city since 2001. As was the case in that year's general election, the Socialist Left made impressive gains at the centre-left's expense, with many left-leaning voters rejecting what they saw as controversial, market-friendly reforms introduced by then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

This year's rejection of Labour was also evident in its primarily northern strongholds, with areas that usually give unwavering support to the party failing to muster up much enthusiasm. In Finnmark, where they won nearly 40% of the vote four years ago, their share dropped by 7.2%, with the Socialist Left and Reds enjoying a combined increase of 4.3%. Several hundred miles south in Nord-Trøndelag, where 41.9% of the electorate voted Labour in 2013, they lost another 7.7% of their previous backers, with the two aforementioned left-wing parties receiving yet more important gains. When examining Labour's losses across the country, it's clear to see that, in part, the two parties to their left benefitted at their expense.

However, Labour's dismal defeat can't be fully explained by looking to the left alone, and it's important to examine what happened on its right flank, too. Despite finishing in fourth place with little over 10% of the vote, the winners of this week's election are undoubtedly the Centre Party, who enjoyed the highest increase in both votes and seats of any party. The 4.8% vote share increase enjoyed by the centrists was larger than those of the Socialist Left, Reds and Greens (the only other parties to improve their results on 2013) combined, and across the country their improved support denied Labour the seats it desperately needed to return to power.

The big surprise heading into the final stretch of campaigning was certainly the rise of the Centre Party, who had quickly become a thorn in the side of all three leading parties. Polling had indicated that Labour, the Conservatives and the Progress Party were all losing out to the centrists, with the leaking of support making the latter potential kingmakers in coalition talks. Traditionally concerned with rural issues, the Centre Party campaigned on a vociferously anti-centralisation and anti-establishment message, with leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum casting himself as the voice of non-Oslo voters. This resulted in the party becoming the largest in Sogn og Fjordane with just shy of 30% of the vote, whilst equally impressive gains in Hedmark, Oppland and Nord-Trøndelag consolidated their position as the second-largest party in those regions.

The government's indication that it would force through controversial plans to merge together constituencies (despite them being met with significant backlash from many local communities) was always going to drive some rural voters towards the Centre Party, but what is more interesting is the negative impact the party's popularity had on their potential coalition partners Labour. By presenting themselves as a "populist" alternative to the two main options, the Centre Party were able to entice supporters from both ends of the political spectrum. With Labour also suffering losses at the expense of the Socialist Left and Reds, an increase in support for the centrists hit them particularly hard.

What also played a significant role in Labour's defeat was the unfair urban-rural divide evident in Norway's electoral system. By being heavily weighted in favour of those voters living in rural districts, a vote cast in the remote area of Finnmark, for instance, currently carries around double the weight of one from Oslo. Seeing as the Centre Party - the traditional choice of many rural voters - made some of its most significant gains in the country's most sparsely populated regions, it's clear to see that Norway's bias in favour of rural districts played a direct role in boosting the party's parliamentary representation at the expense of Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly a positive election for the Conservatives, the next four years are unlikely to be easy. A slight decrease in support for both they and the Progress Party means they will have to rely on the support of at least three other parties if they're to remain in power, and talks between prospective partners are set to be tense.

This week's election was certainly a close-fought one that threw up several surprises, but the story isn't over quite yet. With Labour now undertaking a period of intense soul-searching whilst the government desperately try to cobble together a coalition, there are set to be many more twists and turns over the coming weeks and months. But, for now, it can at least be said with some certainty that the Labour Party are a long way off returning to power and must suffer another rare period in the wilderness.

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