Earlier this week I announced a new Monkey Cage initiative to provide timely commentary on international elections from political scientists who are actively following developments in the country in question. I am very pleased that Ola Listhaug of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology agreed to provide a guest post on this week’s Norwegian elections. He writes:
The Norwegian parliamentary election held on September 14 resulted in a narrow majority of seats in the Storting for the red and green coalition of parties. The parties in the coalition, Labor, Socialist Left, and the Centre party received 86 seats against 83 seats for the parties on the right. Within the winning coalition, Labor received 35.4% of the popular vote, an increase of 2.7% from the previous election. The two smaller coalition parties both received 6.2% of the vote which was about status quo for the Centre party and a loss of 2.6% for the Socialist Left party. The Conservative party had 17.2% – an increase of 3.1% from the very low support in the 2005 election. The other party on the right, the populist Progress party received a record share of the votes with 22.9%, slightly higher (+.9%) than the vote share in 2005. Norwegian parties are from historical reasons classified as “left” or “right” or “socialist “ or “bourgeois”. The two remaining parties that achieved representation in the parliament, the Liberal party and the Christian People’s party normally are part of the right or bourgeois bloc of parties, but can also be seen as centre parties. Both parties did badly. The Liberal party was able to elect only 2 MPs from a vote of 3.9% , -2% from 2005 and the Christians declined by 1.2 % to a record low support of only 5.5%.
Several observers have noticed that the losing parties in the Storting received about 50 000 more votes than the winners. There are several reasons for this. The Liberal party fell below a threshold of 4% where a party can get an improved proportionality. Receiving 3.9% the party just missed the threshold and was left to win seats in each of the 19 counties (that elected from 5-17 seats). Second, Norway has an electoral system where votes in rural areas count more than in the urban parts of the country. This gives an advantage to parties with a relative strength in rural areas. In this case it gave an advantage to the parties on the left. That geography is part of the election rules is no accident but signifies the important role of cleavages in Norwegian politics. Looking at the geography of Norway – a large territory with huge distances between south and north and with sparsely populated areas in the north as well as in parts of the south, one can see the reason for giving a vote advantage to the rural periphery. The center-periphery dimension is part of Stein Rokkans conceptual model of Norwegian politics to explain the origin of political cleavages in the period 1880-1935. The cleavages of this period created the party system that we still see remnants of in elections in the twentieth century, but the relationship to the original has now weakened for more than 50 years. Maybe the most striking difference from the original model, is the decline of the center parties. This is not center parties in the Downsian meaning since they can have distinct, even extreme, positions on other dimensions than left-right. The parties have partly attempted to establish their own coalition alternative, but mostly been part of a center-right political bloc. One of the three important center parties, the Centre party (from the beginning a farmer’s party) has chosen to side with the left, from 2005 in the coalition led by the Labor party. The Liberal party has had trouble of finding a consistent issue profile, and even more to align in a coalition with the two parties on the right. The Christian People’s has cooperated with the Conservative party, but has more trouble with the Progress party. In sum, this means that a center that is moderate in left-right terms but distinct in support of religion, distinct regional cultures, and economic interest of rural areas, is almost gone.
The election marked an exception to the rule of increasing losses for the governing parties at Norwegian elections. In the previous elections governing parties had lost decisively, but the red-green coalition was reelected with about the same share of votes as they received in 2005. What can explain this? A standard argument is that economics effects play an important role for the electoral fortunes of governments. It is easier to get reelected when times are good than if the economy is faltering. Like other countries Norway was hit by the financial crisis and the international recession in the period leading up to the election. Unemployment rose, but did not reach more than 3% at the time of the vote. Moreover, the government implemented a series of economic stimulus efforts that together with generous unemployment benefits, universal health care, and free education made it easier to contain the economic effects of the crisis. Finally, the government could spend the extra money from a huge surplus generated from the oil economy. Norway did not need to get into debt to launch the stimulus packages. That Norway has all this wealth, especially the huge oil fund invested abroad, makes it difficult to predict how voters will react to current events. In this case one could see the rise in unemployment, although to a moderate level, as negative for the governing parties. The successful anti-recession policies are probably positive for the government. But the oil fund, at election time standing at more than USD 400 billion (in a country of 4.8 million), can always be used by the opposition parties to argue that Norway has the potential to implement even stronger policies to fight recession. Such arguments must be balanced against assessments of financial responsibility, and it is difficult to conclude if the economic situation was a plus or minus for the red and green coalition in the 2009 election.
What was an advantage was that the governing alternative on the left was more coherent and enjoyed a stronger leadership than what the opposition parties could come up with. Prime minister Stoltenberg stood out as a more popular leader than any of the party leaders on the center-right. These leaders continued to attack each other during the campaign and it seemed unlikely that they could launch a governing alternative even if the parties received a majority of seats in the election. The focus on leadership and cooperation in a context where economic uncertainty still ruled, set the stage for the re-election of the government.