Municipal elections in Norway
National trends on display in Norway’s version of midterms
The Norwegian American
Monday, Sept. 9, was Election Day in Norway. On the ballot were candidates for municipal and county councils. (For readers who aren’t familiar, Norway’s unitary government below the national level is divided into two administrative levels: fylke and kommune, or county and municipality.) Similarly to midterms in the United States, the municipal election, held every four years, often serves as a barometer for the various political parties’ influence in national politics. Monday’s election revealed some important trends, largely along the axes of environment, centralization, and the wedge issue of traffic tolls. Many commentators are calling the results a “protest election,” a reaction the establishment’s status quo.
Currently, there are nine parties represented in Stortinget and at least 17 hold seats in municipalities nationwide. However, because parties must form coalitions to govern, the political spectrum is nevertheless oriented around the left and right wings, with the Labor Party predominant on the left and the Conservative Party (Høyre) on the right. Still, with a wider array of party platforms to choose from, elections can reveal nuanced stances on issues and values among voters.
The two biggest winners this year were the Center Party (Senterpartiet) and the Green Party (Miljøpartiet de Grønne). The Greens took only 6.7% of the vote nationwide but won over 10% in several major municipalities like Trondheim, Bærum, and Asker, and 9.8% in Bergen, representing a newly significant portion of the political landscape. In Oslo, over 15% of voters went Green, making them the third largest party in the capital. NRK commentator Magnus Takvam notes that MDG’s “national breakthrough” reflects voters’ growing engagement in environmental and climate issues (www.nrk.no/ytring/1.14695406). The Center Party, usually strongest in rural areas, also had a historic night, increasing its share of the national vote from under 10% in 2015 to over 15% this year, becoming Norway’s third largest party. At the core of Center Party’s platform is a desire to decentralize government services. Norway has seen a marked tendency to merge municipalities and counties under Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government. In fact, as of Jan. 1, 2020, Norway’s map will be reorganized, changing from its current 18 to just 11 counties. The same trend is happening at the municipal level: today’s 422 municipalities will be reduced to 356 next year. The government has argued that such centralization makes for more efficient delivery of services, but this election suggests that many voters disagree.
Among the hardest hit parties were the Labor Party on the left and all four of the current right-leaning government parties, the Conservative Party, the far-right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkepartiet), and the Liberal Party (Venstrepartiet). Labor, the nation’s largest party since 1927, had its worst ever showing in a municipal election, losing 8.2% of its share since 2015 and, for the first time in a municipal election, retaining less than 25% of the national vote. The governing Conservative Party also lost ground, receiving barely 20% of the vote nationwide—a loss of 3%. All four government parties fared worse this year than in 2015.
In her election night speech, Solberg expressed frustration for the Conservatives—a frustration both emphasized and mitigated by a “clear increase in voter participation.” That increase, given the results, could bode poorly for her government, even as she noted that the greater participation “is something we all should be happy about, for participation in democracy is extremely important” (www.nrk.no/norge/1.14693574). Voter participation this year, at 64.5%, was the highest since 1991 (www.nrk.no/slik-stemte-norge-1.14695107).
But with the Conservatives’ loss, combined with historically weak performances by the Progress and Liberal Parties, Solberg has a lot to manage in the coming months. As Takvam writes, “Discussion of further government participation for [the Progress Party] and a possible change of leadership in the Liberal Party could be the next chapter in the history of Erna Solberg’s government.” Meanwhile, commentators note that Labor’s poor turnout can be partly attributed to gains made by its fellow parties on the left, particularly the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstrepartiet) and the Red Party (Rødt). Thus, Jonas Gahr Støre, the Labor Party’s leader, also has a hill to climb before the Parliamentary elections in 2021. As NRK commentator Lars Nehru Sand puts it, uniting the left wing “will be no bike ride in the park” for Støre (www.nrk.no/ytring/1.14697710).
A summary of this year’s election is incomplete without mentioning the People’s Action No to More Tolls (Folkeaskjonen Nei til mer Bompenger). The party was founded in 2014 as a single-issue reaction to the widespread road-use tolls that have primarily affected residents of Norway’s major cities. Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim, along with numerous smaller cities, have extensive toll networks on major roads surrounding their urban cores, known as toll-rings. In recent years, Norway’s largest toll-ringed cities have seen increases in toll stations in a government effort to reduce car traffic in city centers. While the No to More Tolls party received votes in only 11 municipalities, it was a significant presence in Bergen, where it won nearly as large a share as both Labor and the Conservatives. Part of what makes its arrival noteworthy is that its fight against tolls pits it against the increasingly influential Greens, who support tolls in their aggressive effort to discourage petroleum-based transportation. In her election-night speech, responding to cheers from loyal Green Party supporters, Oslo councilmember Lan Marie Berg shouted, “We love toll-rings!” (www.nrk.no/ostlandssendingen/1.14694261). Yet in Stavanger, the No to More Tolls and the Greens have already agreed to cooperate as part of a larger left-oriented coalition with the Labor, Center, Socialist Left, and Red parties, representing a power-shift in the nation’s oil city, and likely resulting in its first Labor Party mayor in 24 years.
“This is an election result that changes the political landscape dramatically,” says Sand. Indeed, such a spread of issues and reactions, combined with increasing voter participation, strengthening voices from traditionally smaller parties, and a robust conversation about environmental concerns permeating almost every party platform, all suggest that 2021’s parliamentary election will be one to watch.
Andy Meyer is a literature and language teacher with over 14 years of experience in colleges, universities, and independent high schools. He holds a doctorate in English from the University of Washington and will soon begin teaching Norwegian there. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway. He began working for The Norwegian American in August 2019.
This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.