How Norwegians do it: National elections in Norway

Photo: David Nikel Elections in Norway are a sober affair, with no alcohol sold on voting day. Bars remain open, however.

Photo: David Nikel
Elections in Norway are a sober affair, with no alcohol sold on voting day. Bars remain open, however.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

Have you ever wondered how Norwegians do it? I mean, how Norwegians run their national elections?

I was curious about how these elections worked. I had heard the Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S., Kåre Aas, speak briefly about them in a question and answer session in Anchorage, Alaska, at the end of his speech to members of the World Affairs Council. Because of my curiosity, the Editor of The Norwegian American gave me the assignment of learning more and sharing what I found out.

In Norway the national and local elections (county and municipal) are held every four years, but never in the same year. The local and national elections are staggered so they are separated by an interval of two years. On September 11, 2017, Norway will hold its next national election; the last local election was held in September of 2015. At this upcoming national election, Norwegians will be voting for their representatives who will sit in the Norwegian parliament, called the Storting, which roughly translates to “the Great Council or Assembly.” Ting (council or assembly) is a term that goes way back to the Viking Age if not even earlier, underscoring the fact that democratic government has deep roots in Norway.

Norway’s Storting is a unicameral parliament, meaning that it meets as a single, unified legislative body. Its members number 169 representatives called Stortingrepresentanter in Norwegian. Parliamentary seats are proportionally allocated among Norway’s 19 counties or “fylker” (Oslo is included as a fylke on its own, even though it is a city). This allocation of parliamentary representatives is based on both the population of each individual county and its geographical size.

Of the 169 seats, 19 are set aside as at-large seats. These seats are called “leveling seats” and are used by the election authorities to adjust for potential discrepancies in the allocation of parliamentary seats. For example, if a particular political party has won fewer seats than would be indicated by their percentage share of the national vote, they may be entitled to receive a leveling or compensation seat. However, to be eligible for these seats, the party in question must have received at least 4% of the total popular vote.

It is important to understand, as Hilde Janne Skorpen, Norwegian Consul General in San Francisco, advised me, that “Norwegian elections are not based on personalities, but on political parties.” So when one votes, it is not for individual candidates but for lists of candidates that have been selected by the various parties. These voting lists (Valg­listene) are drawn up by each of the parties in the various counties and are ranked and numbered so that the top candidates of each party appear at the top of the list and the less important candidates toward the bottom of the list. According to Laila Owren, a life-long citizen of Kristiansand, Norway, those below the number three are often disregarded by the voters and called listefyll, a term that means unimportant clutter, for they have little chance of being elected.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun A vintage political poster for the Labor party on display in the We Won the Land exhibit within Lillehammer’s Maihaugen museum.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
A vintage political poster for the Labor party on display in the We Won the Land exhibit within Lillehammer’s Maihaugen museum.

At present there are eight major political parties contending for seats in the Storting. Included in this number are the Socialist Left Party, the Labor Party, the Center Party, the Green Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, and the Progress Party.

The Socialist Left Party is furthest to the left and the Progress Party is furthest to the right in terms of Norway’s political spectrum.

There are also a host of minor parties like the Society Party (Anarchist) or the Christian Unity Party (ultra conservative), but these rarely win enough votes to win a seat in the Storting and have a say in government, though the Rødt Party (socialist/communist) has on occasion come close to having a winning candidate.

So how do these parties get their messages to potential voters? They hold meetings, they pass out fliers, and they send out mass mailings outlining their respective platforms. Jens Stoltenberg, who was once leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister, even took to the stunt of driving a taxi around Oslo and picking up and dropping off passengers in order to get attention.

According to Rune Bjornsen of Stavanger, public television and radio do a good job informing the public through debates and news programs. He says that NRK, Norway’s public broadcasting network, and TV 2, partly funded by the government, both are required to provide non-partisan programs to inform the public on party platforms and positions. In addition, in light of the importance of social media today’s world, the parties frequently employ Facebook and Instagram to get their messages across to the public. But according to Consul General Skorpen, most Norwegians learn about the different party platforms through the newspapers. Norwegians are voracious readers of newspapers.

Norway you will not hear or see any commercial ads for the political parties on television or radio. It is against the law to purchase advertising time for political messages on either public or private television or radio. Norway does not set any limits on political spending, but it does set limits on where you can spend your money. The political parties can receive donations from private citizens, labor unions, employers’ associations, and corporations, but the majority of their funding comes from public funds and these funds are allocated proportionately on the basis of each party’s representation in parliament.

The national election campaigns (Valgkampen) generally begin in August about a year before the actual election. In 2016, the national campaign began with a televised debate among the various party leaders in Arendal, Norway, on August 14. Consul General Skorpen told me that the campaign activity tends to ramp up about two months prior to the election with increasing television debates as well as informational programs on the elections. Owren observed that in the heat of the campaign, politicians handing out fliers, chatting with passers-by, and trolling for votes seem to vastly outnumber the many street beggars who flock to her town in the summer.

On the day of the election, every Norwegian citizen 18 years and over can exercise his or her right to vote. Each will choose a party list to their liking and place a check by the candidates he or she favors. The voter can choose all the candidates on the list or mark only two or three on the party list. Norwegian voters can also cross out names on the list they do not like or change the ranking of the candidates on the list. Furthermore, there is even a special space on the voting card where you can write in a candidate from another party. Each vote is a direct vote for a particular party list and there is no intermediary system such as the Electoral College as in the United States.

Early voting is also possible in Norway. Voting booths in small temporary buildings are set up for this purpose about a month before the actual election day. These temporary early-voting structures are often conveniently placed in central places that are highly trafficked by the public.

After the election authorities have tallied the vote and determined the number of seats won by the various parties, the newly elected Storting representatives begin negotiations in order to form an executive government. Because no current political parties have been capable of winning a majority of the seats (85), they must necessarily nurture alliances with other parties in order to form a standing government. For instance, in 2013, the Conservative Party with 48 seats sought a coalition with the Progress Party (29 seats), the Christian Democratic Party (10 seats), and the Liberal Party (9 seats). Even though the Labor Party had won the largest number of seats (55) it could not counter this conservative coalition that now controlled a total of 96 seats in the Storting. As is usual, there was considerable give and take among the parties and it took the Conservative Party and the Progress Party nearly three weeks to win over the smaller Christian Democrats and Liberals to their cause.

As the leader of the powerful Conservative Party and the leader of the overall coalition of conservative parties, Erna Solberg gained the post of Prime Minister (Statsminister) and Siv Jensen, as head of the Progress Party, got the reward of serving as Finance Minister. It is important to note that the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats did not seek posts with the current government and thus have no representation in the ruling cabinet. Despite being willing allies of the Conservative and Progress parties, they did not feel comfortable participating in outright governance in close partnership with the more right-wing, libertarian Progress Party.

Not only do women occupy seven top posts in the current Norwegian cabinet, they also make up a significant number of the members of the Storting. In 2013, 67 women were elected to the Storting and thus they now control over 39.6% of Norway’s parliament. The trend of increasing female representation in the national government is only expected to increase in the future.

Hopefully, this primer of Norwegian elections will help you follow and understand Norway’s upcoming election in 2017. As you can see, their electoral process is very different from ours in the United States.

Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.