Left falls short in Norway

Monday’s parliamentary election in Norway turned out much as expected (see my preview here). The parties of the current governing coalition retained their majority, with 88 of the 169 seats (down eight). It’s expected that the Conservative/Progress Party combination will return to government, but it will be more precarious this time since it depends on both the smaller parties – Liberals and Christian Democrats – for its majority.

The three biggest parties all lost ground, but there were no huge shifts in support. (Official figures are here.) While Labour remains the largest party, it is now only 2.4% ahead of the Conservatives. The Centre Party, a rural-based party aligned with Labour, scored the most impressive gains, jumping to fourth place with 10.3%.

Prime minister Erna Solberg becomes the first centre-right leader to win re-election in Norway since 1985. After a year of panic over populism, Norway provides further evidence that the European scene is settling down into more mainstream ways. Economic recovery has brought better times for incumbents and a drift away from the far right; the Progress Party’s vote fell for the second successive election.

Mainstream centre-left parties are still in trouble, but the Norwegian opposition may reasonably feel that it got a bad deal from the electoral system. If you just look at the seven parties that cleared the 4% threshold, the government parties clearly had more votes: 48.9% to 43.7%. But two parties just missed out – the Greens with 3.2% and the Red Party with 2.4% – winning just a single constituency seat each. If their votes are added to the opposition total, it had a narrow plurality.

So although the threshold is designed to stop excessive fragmentation of the party system, it can distort results. On the other hand, a centre-left coalition with a wafer-thin majority would have been an incredibly difficult beast to manage. Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre may have dodged a bullet.

Norway is a small country, but the lesson is of wider application, with New Zealand and Germany going to the polls at the end of next week. Their threshold is a bigger barrier: not just because it’s higher (5%), but because the constituency seats are single-member (first-past-the-post), making it extremely difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament that way.

That was a major factor in the last German election, when both the Liberals and the far-right AfD fell just below the 5% mark, forcing chancellor Angela Merkel into a grand coalition in order to maintain her majority. This time, the smaller parties all look like clearing the bar in Germany, but New Zealand (where winning even a single constituency seat puts a party in the running for proportional seats) is going to be something of a lottery. We’ll have a proper look at that in the next few days.


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