Election preview: Norway

Norway goes to the polls today (some municipalities started voting yesterday), with its centre-right government narrowly favored to win re-election, although with a reduced majority.

The last election, in 2013, saw the defeat of the two-term centre-left government led by the Labour Party, traditionally the country’s largest party. The new governing majority consisted of the Conservatives (centre-right), the Progress Party (far right, or at least further-right), the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. In aggregate, the four parties won 53.9% of the vote and 96 of the 169 seats in parliament. (Results here: the Norwegian electoral commission helpfully provides an English version.)

The latter two parties, however, declined to join the ministry headed by Conservative leader Erna Solberg, instead offering it support on matters of confidence. The Progress Party did join, marking its first entry into government – although it had supported a Conservative government back in 2001-05.

The Progress Party is a right-wing populist party, but it lacks the traditional far-right trappings of, say, the National Front in France or the Sweden Democrats. It could be more accurately characterised as an anti-immigrant libertarian party. It lost ground in 2013, perhaps due in part to the reaction against the far-right terrorist attack perpetrated by Anders Breivik in 2011. Its support then spiked in 2015 following the Middle East refugee crisis, but has since returned to the mid-teens.

Three parties make up the official opposition: Labour with 55 seats, the agrarian Centre Party with ten and the Socialist Left with seven. (There is also a single Green MP.) Opinion polls show Labour losing ground but the other two making gains since the last election – Wikipedia summarises the figures. As in much of western Europe, it seems that economic recovery has driven a shift back towards the incumbents.

Although the Progress Party is in government, the existence of three basically centrist parties (Christian Democrats, Liberals and Centre), commanding between one-sixth and one-fifth of the vote between them, keeps Norwegian politics from drifting too far to the extremes. And both the prospect and now the reality of being in government seem to have done a lot to keep the Progress Party under the control of its more moderate wing.

The government currently seems to have the edge in the polls, but it could still be defeated by the electoral system. The majority of MPs (150) are directly elected by multi-member constituencies, with another 19 as “compensatory” seats to ensure overall proportionality. To qualify for the latter, a party needs to reach a 4% threshold, and four parties are currently polling very close to that mark: the Christian Democrats and Liberals, which narrowly made it last time, and the Greens and the far-left Red Party, which didn’t.

Since the constituency seats are multi-member (in contrast to the single-member seats in Germany or New Zealand, which have an otherwise similar system), minor parties can win some seats even if they fall below the threshold; that’s how the Greens got into parliament last time. But it still makes a big difference. The Liberals, for example, won nine seats in 2013 for their 5.2%, but five of them were compensatory seats; in 2009 they had managed only 3.8% and two seats.

So if the Greens or the Reds make it over 4% and one of the smaller government parties fails to do so, a centre-left majority is a distinct possibility. Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre would then have the task of trying to put together a government that could win support from both centre and far left.

Polls close at 5am tomorrow, eastern Australian time, and results should be reasonably complete within a couple of hours. There are some good previews at the Guardian, Reuters, Bloomberg and Huffington Post, and Adam Carr has a nice map of the 2013 result.


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