. Elections in Norway | London Progressive Journal
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Elections in Norway

Sat 7th Sep 2013

While Europe and most Western countries are facing one of the biggest recessions in history, Norway is flourishing: GDP per capita is now over $60,000 a year, the economy grew by three percent in 2012, and the unemployment rate is as low as 3.5 per cent. However, Norwegians are being called to vote for their new parliament on September 9th, a day which could dramatically change the country’s direction. The Labour party has been the leading party in Norway for all but 16 of the last 78 years. However, the most recent polls show that Norwegians are likely to prefer a conservative coalition government for the first time in over a decade. According to the polls, the Labour party should gain about 30 percent of the vote but the Conservative party is leading with 32 percent of the vote which would give it 58 seats in the 169-seat parliament. This is a huge increase from 2005 when the Conservatives gained only 23 seats.

Last June, in an attempt to comprehend what Norwegians think, the Prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, pretended to be a taxi driver in Oslo. While he took his passengers to their destinations, he chatted about the upcoming elections to get a better picture and a deeper understanding of what is happening in Norway and why the Labour party, after eight years in power, risks losing the upcoming elections.

Norway is a country with a solid Left tradition. I spoke with Mr Rudolph Brynn, a Labour politician in Oslo campaigning for election.

PB: Both the Conservatives, led by Ms. Erna Solberg, and the Labour party share some basic policies: reducing taxes, easing government regulation, reforming the welfare system to boost entrepreneurship and reducing national dependency on oil revenues. However, it seems that the Conservatives are now targeting disillusioned Labour voters by moving towards the centre. What are the key differences between the Labour and the Conservative programmes?

RB: It has been commented, especially by the smaller Norwegian parties, that it is hard to see any particular differences between the programmes of the two parties – the leader of the right-wing Progress party, Ms Siv Jensen, has repeatedly stated that both of them “live in a social democratic bubble”. The popular impression being that there is such a big consensus on the “Norwegian model” that the election is more about changing details than touching holy grails like the welfare state, the oil revenues, the EU issue or the high employment rate.

On the other hand, significant differences appear when you study the issues being discussed prior to the election. First of all, it is important to remember that this is a struggle between two coalitions. The ruling coalition is led by the Labour party, which rules together with the Socialist Left party and the Centre Party. The opposition is led by the Conservatives, having agreed to make an alternative coalition consisting of themselves, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the right-wing Progress party. The opposition's problem is that they do not present to the voters a viable coalition of parties. They are very much in disagreement amongst themselves and not even fighting on a common platform. (Neither are the present governing parties but after eight years in power they have proven able to solve their differences on issues arising).

I will give some examples of current issues:

· Oil revenue: The current rule is that there is a limit to what the Government may spend of its oil revenue, which is 4 per cent of the size of the fund. This is to ensure continued welfare for future generations. Labour will not change this rule, indeed we have spent less whilst in government. On the opposition side, the Conservatives will spend more. The Progress party want to spend much more (instead of saving for future generations), while the Christian Democrats and the Liberals want to stick to the status quo.

· Parental leave: Families today have 59 weeks of fully paid parental leave when a child is born. The labour led coalition want to maintain the requirement that fathers can use 14 of these weeks. The Conservatives want to remove the requirement.

· Employment: Here there are major differences of opinion here. The Conservatives want to introduce more flexibility on how to determine working time and ease other restrictions on employment. This is about removing regulation prohibiting working on two subsequent Sundays. The Conservatives also want more temporary employment (today permanent employment is more common). They also want to scrap from centrally negotiated agreements on salary and working hours.

- The Labour party is strongly against this: the rights of employees in Norway is the outcome of decades of political struggle by the labour movement and the trade unions. We fear that a Conservative-led government will water down rights which are deeply rooted in Norwegian society. Sweden, which had a Conservative government in power for a prolonged period of time, suffers from a much harsher labour market climate where “flexibility” is the rule - either you accept working conditions or leave.

· Health care: The Labour led coalition wants to keep in place our strong public healthcare system with full state control over hospitals, while the Conservatives want privatisation (which they call “competition”). The left-wing parties do not want a system where the public pay for patients using private hospitals, owned by private investors who pocket the money. The Conservatives and their allies want to allow more private enterprise into the health care system while at the same time they favour tax cuts.

 

· Taxes: The Labour party want to maintain taxation at current levels while the Conservative coalition wants to reduce taxation, in particular they want to reduce property tax. Labour’s argument is that this will only benefit those with the higher incomes and more property.

 

· Immigration and asylum is another controversial issue. Again, the Labour coalition want to maintain the status quo while the Progress Party wants restrictions. The Conservatives are “caught in the middle”.

PB: Norwegians are traditionally very sceptical about joining the EU and such opposition has significantly increased in the wake of recent bailouts of insolvent nations. Over 70 percent of voters are against EU membership. On this point, both the Labour and Conservative parties are in favour of joining the European Union, while all minor parties are against joining the European Union. What is the Labour party's view today considering the current economic crisis in Europe?

RB: The Labour Party is officially in favour of joining the EU but our two coalition partners are against joining the EU. Public opinion is also now strongly against joining the EU. However, the situation may change. Today both coalitions have a more or less silent agreement that joining the EU will not be a major issue unless there is a major shift in public opinion.

PB : The Norwegian Government Pension Fund is the largest in the world. Last month their assets were valued at $740 billion. This seems to be a key issue between Conservative and Labour policy. The fund is managed by a single body and the Conservatives argue that if the pension fund is divided into several parts, the emerging competition between different companies will help to increase the total value of assets. What would really change for the average citizen and what are the main risks of dividing the pension fund?

RB : Today the Ministry of finance is responsible for the fund and it is administered by the Bank of Norway. The Fund is thus under Government management. A “Council of Ethics” checks that investments are not made in companies which violate human rights, profit from the arms trade, or are involved in practices which harm the environment.

The Conservatives think that productivity and investment in employment is more important than the Pension Fund. They feel that the way the Fund is currently used will weaken competitiveness. While they agree with the 4 per cent rule (see above) they state that “the intention of this rule was that the extra money should be used for increased growth in [the] Norwegian economy through focusing on education and research, infrastructure and tax reduction – but the government (Labour) has unfortunately not followed up the former (Conservative) government’s policy on this”. They are now pondering on splitting the Pension Fund into two separate funds: one for investment in shares and the other for investment in bonds.

Today the Pension Fund invests in bonds and property. The Conservatives also want future investment in infrastructure. They argue that the Pension Fund is currently too big and unmanageable. For ordinary citizens the security of the Fund is vital to safeguard the pensions of the growing elderly population. Of course, a debate on how to best manage the Fund is useful but I am sceptical of any change that could threaten the stability of today’s system or weaken the ethics of any investments. One day, the oil supply will run out and a reserve fund will secure the continuation of our society’s model and a safer future. Innovation is important in securing the future output of Norwegians exports but, at the same time, the continued access to a social safety net for all is my main concern.

PB : Immigration is certainly a key issue in today's politics. The massacres perpetrated by Anders Breivik highlighted that there are unresolved issues surrounding immigration. Perhaps the most unpleasant fact that this tragedy brought to the surface was that, despite condemning Breivik's actions as unacceptable, some Norwegians partly agree with some of his ideas. In the 2009 elections, the ultra-right Progress Party won the second place with 23 percent of the vote. They demanded an end to Muslim immigration and wanted to restrict immigration altogether. Today there are about 180,000 Muslim immigrants in Norway (approximately 3% of the population). In 2012, 40% of school children in Oslo were Muslims. Some of them are fully integrated into society, such as Ms Hadia Tajik, the Minister of Culture. Yet there are still many issues to face, including unemployment rates among Asian and African immigrants being as high as nine per cent (almost three times as high as the average). What is the Labour Party’s strategy to face such an urgent issue?

PB: Integration [of immigrants] into the labour market is a vital concern for the Labour Party. In particular, public employment will be used to ensure not only employment for minority groups but also disabled people (for many years the unemployment rate for disabled people has been much higher than for other [groups]). We emphasise training in Norwegian language to prepare for employment, to continue avoiding school classes being split according to language, respecting religious identity (however the Labour Party is against [the] wearing of religious symbols [for those] working as police [officers], lawyers or judges) and not least including more immigrant women into the labour market. I also believe that more awareness activities are necessary [for] employers.

The “Breivik effect” is perhaps not so obvious in the political arena but feelings still run high. For instance, when the PM, Mr. Stoltenberg, criticised Mrs Solberg, chair of the Conservative Party, for lacking management skills and thus not presenting a viable alternative as head of a future Norwegian government, the Conservatives countered by referring to his lack of preparedness before and during the 2011 massacre. This was heavily criticised both by the government and much of the press and the Conservatives [lost support as reflected in] opinion polls.

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