Norway-USA in contrast: Two governments’ national elections

Photo: Røed / Wikimedia Commons A Norwegian ballot box.

Photo: Røed / Wikimedia Commons
A Norwegian ballot box.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The governments of western democracies are alike in many ways. But they also differ in ways most apparent in national election years when news and public awareness focuses on how the leaders of a country are chosen.

The scenarios of the ongoing U.S. Presidential election and of the forthcoming 2017 Norwegian Storting (Parliament) election reflect differences in the relationship between the government and its people. The roots of the differences lie in history and today are most evident in data about the two countries.

Compared to the USA, Norway is tiny, with an area 1/25 that of the USA. It also has a far smaller population, 1/62 that of the USA. But in Norway as in the USA, geographically there’s much uninhabited space, more so in Norway. Across the country, there’s an average of 35 people per square mile in Norway, a bit more than a third as many as the 90.6 people per square mile in the USA. So the facts of the political geographies of the two countries are essentially those of their urbanized areas.

In both countries, power is divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, as defined by a constitution. The everyday functioning of the three branches are similar, but there are significant differences at the executive and legislative levels.

The USA is a constitutional republic in which the president, now Barack Obama, is the head of state as well as of government. The administrative divisions of the country comprise 50 states, Washington, D.C., five territories, and smaller possessions. The legislature is the bicameral Congress.

Norway is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government in which the king is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. The king, now Harald V, officially has executive power, but today his duties are essentially only representative and ceremonial. The prime minister now is Erna Solberg, the second woman PM after the first, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was PM in 1981 and 1986-89. The administrative divisions of the country comprise 19 fylker (counties). The legislature is the unicameral Storting.

For American readers of this newspaper, the ways in which government and politics function in the constitutional monarchy of Norway are most easily understood by looking to neighboring Canada, a constitutional monarchy in which Queen Elizabeth II is head of state and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is head of government. Save for Canada being officially bilingual, English and French (most so in the Province of Quebec), everyday life in Canada seems much like everyday life in the USA. The same might be said of Norway.

But there are differences in the ways government and politics function. Most noticeably, the functions of the Cabinets differ. In the U.S., the Cabinet functions as an advisory council to the president. In Norway, the Cabinet is a state council drawn from members of parliament and appointed by the king with the approval of the Storting. It has executive power in advising the prime minister, so one speaks of the sitting cabinet as a Government (usually capitalized).

Image compiled by the Norwegian American Weekly Norway has a lot more selection than the U.S. in terms of political parties, and Norwegians tend to vote for parties rather than personalities.

Image compiled by the Norwegian American Weekly
Norway has a lot more selection than the U.S. in terms of political parties, and Norwegians tend to vote for parties rather than personalities.

While the United States has two major political parties and some smaller ones, Norway has nine major political parties and some aspiring fringe ones. These differences shape the ways in which the citizenry views and chooses its leaders. While Americans tend to vote for a single personality, Norwegians vote for the parties. So politics loom large in Norwegian perceptions of government. Likewise, information provided by government agencies is prominent in everyday affairs.

Aside from the political persuasions professed, the practice of politics and the conduct of elections are subject to requirements as are other professions and their interactions with the public. For further details, see Valghåndboken (Further reading). For a concise overview of the spectrum of information provided by public agencies, see New in Norway (Further reading).

The issues facing the nine political parties in their positioning for the 2017 national election include wages and taxes, healthcare, education, and immigration in the face of the refugee crisis in Europe. These issues will be covered in forthcoming articles in this NAW series on the differences between the governments of the U.S. and Norway, of which this overview article is the first.

Further reading:
“Norsk politics shift leftward,” an overview of the Norwegian local elections held Monday, September 14, 2015, a barometer of public opinion of the parties and an indicator of the probable outcome of the forthcoming national elections in 2017. Norwegian American Weekly, September 25, 2015, online at

Valghåndboken (Election Manual), the rules and regulations governing elections and political parties set forth in 29 chapters, 149 pages, periodically updated, published by the Office of the Prime Minister and available in two Norwegian versions (Bokmål and Nynorsk) as well as English. PDF downloadable at:

New in Norway, Practical information from public agencies, 2015, 136 page softcover, ISBN 978-82-8246-140-5, the everyday specifics of living and working in Norway, in seven chapters covering Moving to Norway, Work, Children and Schools, Health, Recreational Activities, Transport and Services, and Useful Information including how the court system is organized, the offerings of the public agencies, and contact details should you have questions. PDF version downloadable from

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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