Norway votes in 'election thriller'

11 September 2017 - 14:22 By AFP
Norway's Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Store casts his vote to the Norwegian parliamentary election in Oslo, Norway September 10, 2017.
Norway's Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Store casts his vote to the Norwegian parliamentary election in Oslo, Norway September 10, 2017.
Image: scanpix/Terje Pedersen/via REUTERS

Norwegians voted on Monday in an election nail-biter in "the world's happiest country" with the outgoing rightwing coalition facing a strong challenge from the centre-left opposition.

Opinion polls in the oil-rich Nordic state have predicted an extraordinarily close race between Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg's team and the opposition led by Labour's Jonas Gahr Store.

Several small parties could end up as kingmakers.

"I'm ready for four more years," the popular and experienced 56-year-old Solberg said as she voted Monday in a school in her hometown of Bergen on the west coast.

"Let's see if the Norwegian people are ready for four more years with me."

Everything is "set for the biggest election thriller in many decades," a political commentator for TV2 television said after a final opinion poll published Saturday credited the right with the narrowest possible majority, albeit within the margin of error.

In power since 2013, the coalition government, comprising Solberg's Conservatives and the mildly populist anti-immigration Progress Party, has campaigned on a vow of continuity.

The government has successfully steered the wealthy country of 5.3 million -- Western Europe's biggest oil producer -- through two crises: the oil industry's slump after the drop in crude prices since 2014, and the migrant crisis in 2015.

Over the past four years, the right has focused on kickstarting the economy and preparing the country for the post-oil era by reducing taxes.

The opposition and many economists have however criticised the government for dipping too generously into the country's massive sovereign wealth fund, worth almost $1 trillion.

Meanwhile, Store, a millionaire, has vowed to raise taxes for the richest, in a bid to bolster Norwegians' cherished welfare state and reduce inequalities in society.

"We need a change now because we are growing apart from each other," the 57-year-old Labour leader said after casting his ballot on Sunday, an option offered in many municipalities.

Elin Festoy, a 49-year-old media producer, told AFP she was voting for the right because employment was the key issue in her eyes.

"I think we need to get young people into jobs, and the best way to integrate refugees and immigrants is by job creation," she said.

Meanwhile, 28-year-old recruiter Kaja van der Schoor said she was voting for change.

"I would say, when it comes to refugees, that I think we need some things to change," she said.

"I think it's been fronted as a way to split society and sort of scare Norway, that it's a bad thing. But it's something we have to do. We have to help."

Small parties key

Norway is blessed with high living standards, education and a comprehensive welfare state -- qualities that helped it to be named the happiest country in the world in a respected UN study in March.

The Conservatives and Labour agree on many issues: continuing oil activities in the Arctic, a restricted immigration policy, and close ties with the EU, of which Norway is not a member.

Yet Labour has criticised Solberg for her difficulty in taming her occasionally provocative junior coalition partner, the Progress Party, especially Immigration and Integration Minister Sylvi Listhaug.

Labour and the Conservatives are expected to post lower election scores compared to four years ago.

As a result, both will be dependent on the support of smaller parties who have played an unusually large role in the campaign -- and tricky negotiations to form a government seem inevitable.

Among the smaller parties are the eurosceptic agrarian Centre Party opposed to the urban elite, the Green Party which wants to see the end of all new oil exploration, and the Red Party, a Marxist group opposed to private actors in the public sector.

"Everyone has their niche with a very clear message," Johannes Bergh of the Institute for Social Research told AFP. "Their rise will make it more difficult to form a stable coalition government."

With the political landscape more splintered than usual, it could take "several weeks" for a new coalition to take shape.

Polls close at 9pm, when the first partial results will be released.