In Norway, the Left Is Winning Back Power

Norway’s election this Monday brought defeat for the unpopular right-wing government. Now, Labor looks set to return to power — together with an emboldened radical left.

Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of Norway's radical-left Red Party, which broke the electoral threshold of 4 percent in Monday's parliamentary election.

In Norway’s parliamentary election on Monday, the country took a significant step to the left, securing one hundred mandates for the left side of the political spectrum, out of a total of 169. It’s unclear who will form the government, but it will likely be a majority coalition of the Labour Party (Ap), the Centre Party (Sp), and the Socialist Left Party (SV), or a minority coalition with just Ap and Sp. Alternatively, Labour can form a minority government alone, with support from the left in parliament, a model similar to the government of Denmark and Portugal.

The biggest takeaway is the breakthrough of the radical-left Red Party (R), which was the first new party in Norwegian history to break the electoral threshold of 4 percent. The Labour Party, in spite of bad polls in the spring, managed to secure its role as Norway’s largest party, even though they lost 1 percent since the previous election four years ago. The biggest increase went to the Centre Party, which ran a campaign against unpopular centralization reforms. The Socialist Left Party increased their support by 1.6 percent — less than the best polls predicted but a good result, especially considering the competition from the Red Party and the Green Party, as the three fight for many of the same votes.

Race for the Threshold

Norwegian politics has many parties, and therefore a lot depends on who breaks the electoral threshold of 4 percent and who does not. The parties hovering around the threshold are often referred to as small parties, and the rest as big parties.

For the last eight years, Norway has been ruled by a coalition of four right-wing parties, although the makeup of the government has varied over time. The right wing consists of the big parties the Conservative Party (H) and the far-right, anti-immigration Progress Party (FrP). The small parties on the right side are the Christian Party (KrF) and the Liberal Party (V).

These latter two, together with the Centre Party, have tried to frame themselves as center parties, neither left nor right. Lately, however, they have been under increasing pressure to pick a side if they want to seek governmental influence. The Green Party (MDG) has also previously insisted that it doesn’t belong to any one side in politics, but in this election, the Greens pointed to the Labour leader as their preferred prime minister, claiming that the right-wing government had done little to curb Norway’s greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.

The left bloc thus consists of five parties. The big ones are those likely to form a government now — Ap, Sp, and SV — and the small ones are the Red Party and the Green Party. When the results came in on Monday, the threshold drama ended with a tie: one party over and one under on each side. The Red Party and the Liberal Party broke the threshold and secured eight mandates each, while the Green Party and the Christian Party came in under, only securing three mandates.

Rural Uprising

Norway has been expected to turn left in this election for quite some time. The right-wing government has grown increasingly unpopular, criticized for cutting taxes for the rich while at the same time introducing cuts in welfare and the public sector. A large reform reduced the number of counties in Norway from nineteen to eleven, while at the same time reducing the number of municipalities. The reform was supposed to make local government more effective and robust, but it sparked protest to the degree that the number of counties may now rise again, as the Centre Party has promised to dissolve all forced mergers.

The protest is linked to a larger dissatisfaction among those in the countryside, and the center-periphery conflict has been one of the biggest in the election. Norway only has about 5 million citizens, but it is geographically vast and has a tradition of a scattered population comprising many small communities. The trend of centralization — people moving into the large cities — is often seen as a sign that the country is losing something significant. Concerns about hospitals and police stations in the districts have caused uproar.

One social movement that has emerged in the last few years is the “bunad guerrillas,” a group of women dressed in the traditional bunad folk costume, who protest the closure of local birth clinics, and the subsequent demand on women to travel a long way for delivery. In the capital of Oslo, there have been significant protests against the Right’s plan to close down the city’s largest hospital and replace it with a new one many fear is too small for the population.

The rise of the periphery led to a surge in support for the Centre Party, which channels this dissatisfaction more than any other. At the beginning of the year, they polled equal with the Labour Party — around 20 percent — and swung many voters over from the right side. However, having picked up dissatisfied voters from the right and center, they started distancing themselves from the left, claiming they did not want to rule with the Socialist Left Party (as they did between 2005 and 2013) and picking a fight with the Green Party over symbolic climate policies.

Some feel this attempt to broaden has gone too far, particularly since many of their voters sought genuine change as a result of their displeasure with the current government. In the end, the Centre Party ended up with 13.5 percent and a demand for development in rural areas — a vision the Left and Labour share.

Climate Change Sinking In?

Another big topic in the campaign was climate change, since Norway is such a large exporter of oil and gas. The debate intensified after the United Nations released its new climate report on August 9 and UN leader António Guterres declared a “code red” for humanity. There is a growing consensus that the Norwegian oil fairy tale (as it is called) will soon be over, although opinion is divided as to whether this will be due to a planned transition that sees the country stop drilling for oil, or due to a rapid drop in demand in the markets. Four parties were deemed “climate parties” (SV, R, MDG, and V), and the climate debate is probably the main reason the Liberal Party managed to cross the electoral threshold.

The fact that the Green Party did not pass the threshold has led to a debate about the climate being less important for voters than the impression given in the media. Critics claim this shows that Norwegians are, with their relative wealth and high standards of living, unwilling to face up to climate reality and lose some comfort. Others say that the Green Party was too radical and uncompromising, and that it took too much of an urban middle-class, “holier than thou” attitude, which scared voters away. All parties except the far right claim that they also care about climate change and the environment, so it could be that voters who cared about the issue went for parties other than the Greens, especially the two on the far left.

The Socialist Left Party and the Red Party raised the issue of climate change in their campaigns, arguing for green industries and a just transition that makes the biggest polluters pay the highest price. The far-right FrP tried to fight for Norwegian oil production and reach out to workers afraid of losing their jobs, but to little avail: they continued their fall from last election and ended up with 11.6 percent.

Two Radical Left Parties — or One?

The last couple years have seen some talk about an electoral collaboration, or even a merger, of the two far-left parties, the Socialist Left Party and the Red Party. The Red Party was formed in 2007 when the Workers’ Communist Party (AKP) and the Red Electoral Alliance (RV) dissolved to form the Red Party, together with AKP’s youth party Red Youth (RU) and independents. RV was originally the electoral front of AKP, but since 1991 it had worked as an independent party.

At this time, the Socialist Left Party had been in government with Labour and the Centre Party for two years as a junior partner. Many on the Left where disappointed with a government that left New Public Management of the public sector intact, opened the Barents Sea for oil and gas drilling, and later joined the NATO-led war in Libya. After eight years in government, SV was punished by their voters in 2013 and barely managed to cross the threshold with 4.1 percent.

Since then, the party took a significant step to the left under the new leader Audun Lysbakken and slowly rebuilt their confidence. The two far-left parties increasingly vote the same in Parliament and agree on most issues, generating demand for more collaboration. That did not happen in this election, although it might have been for the best: a collaboration could have sent a signal to voters that the group was ready to form a strong, left bloc in Norwegian politics and aim for power. But it might also have scared voters away, as the two parties reach somewhat different people. The Red Party is still shunned by some for their communist past, although that seems to be primarily among older generations.

More important, perhaps, is that the Socialist Left Party reaches out particularly to women in the public sector, like teachers and health care workers, while the Red Party has followed their long-term strategy of putting labor and the economy at the heart of their politics. That has made it possible to pick up dissatisfied voters from Labour and increase their votes among those with little education and low incomes. The Socialist Left Party is interested in joining a government, which appeals to voters who would like to see their party being responsible; the Red Party, on the other hand, does not wish to enter any government with this amount of support. Instead, the Red Party prefers to push for radical reforms from Parliament, which may appeal to other voters, particularly those who don’t want to see radicalism compromised.

The Stakes Are High

The election in Norway is a clear mandate from the voters for a left-wing turn away from centralization, inequality, and cuts in welfare and subsidies, and toward social reforms. One reform raised by the Left is free dental care, which is currently outside the free public health care system. There is a demand for new infrastructure across the country (an electoral list demanding a hospital in the far northern town of Alta got elected to Parliament, too), increased taxes for the rich, and state support for the development of new green industries. The Labour Party has also taken a significant step to the left, at least compared to its neoliberal heyday twenty years ago. They would never have gotten this far in the election if they hadn’t.

Questions remain as to how significant their left turn really is, and if they can deliver on the huge expectations set after eight years of right-wing rule and growing dissent. One worrying sign is that the right wing always cuts the taxes for the rich, and Labour is reluctant to increase them again. The party has said it will increase some taxes and fees, but at the same time as cutting others, leaving the combined tax level intact. But social reforms and a stronger welfare state cost money, and they need to be financed somehow — by the rich, if you ask the Socialist Left and the Red Party.

Another cause for worry is that, while the Centre Party has plenty of good policies for workers and the districts, it also includes a significant faction with more right-wing tendencies. The biggest challenge may be this faction’s resistance to climate action. Their deputy leader, Ola Borten Moe, is an oil investor, and the party is opposed to fees on emissions, which they claim will disproportionally affect those in the rural areas who depend on their cars to travel long distances. This is, of course, true for flat fees, but it can be solved with mechanisms like carbon fees and dividends. The Centre Party is also the old party of landowners, tending to oppose environmental regulations on land use and seeking to more or less eradicate predatory mammals like wolves — something the Left finds hard to swallow.

All in all, the election is a huge opportunity for the Left, if they manage to seize it. The fact that the radical left became so large, and that the Red Party has a big group in Parliament ready to pick up disgruntled voters if the government doesn’t deliver, is promising. But the expectations are also high, which means the fall will be hard if Labour fails to make the most of this chance.

The far right, meanwhile, didn’t have much to say in a campaign where immigration was off the table and class politics dominated. Let’s hope it stays that way.