Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, left, listens as Jonas Gahr Store, leader of Norway’s Labor Party, speaks during a televised political debate Sept. 6. Norwegians head to the polls  Sept. 11 to elect a new government. (Kyrre Lien/Bloomberg)

Norway’s parliamentary election on Sept. 11 looks tight, with neither the Labor nor Conservative parties capable of winning an outright majority. The Center Party, a potential coalition kingmaker, has pulled ahead of the pack of smaller parties with a curious, anti-Oslo populist approach focusing on Norway’s center-periphery divide.

After the 2013 election, the center-right Conservatives and the anti-immigration Progress Party formed a minority government, with support from the Liberals and Christian Democrats. This government has survived the full parliamentary cycle, but polling since 2013 has shown considerable fluctuation in voter support (see Figure 1).

Here are four things to know:

1) The Center Party is on the rise, by being anti-center. The big surprise is the rise of the Center Party, which is taking voters from each of the three largest parties. Historically a farmers party, the Center wants to scrap Norway’s membership in the European Economic Area (EEA), leave the Schengen Area of passport-free travel, ban the burqa in public spaces and increase defense spending. A political rival recently characterized the Center’s leader, the baldheaded Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, as “a small wig away from Donald Trump.

Is the rise of the Center Party just another European backlash against immigration? Not exactly.

This campaign is more about the center-periphery cleavage in Norwegian politics. The current government made a number of centralizing changes a top priority, aiming to reduce the number of municipalities, some of which include just a few hundred citizens. Local referendums were held to determine which municipalities to merge. When the results did not support the plan, the government threatened to force these mergers.

In a country in which many consider Oslo to be interfering, naive and arrogant, such actions were a godsend to the Center Party, the only one with full ownership of the periphery end of the center-periphery divide. The party promised to take up the fight of the people against distant decision-making — and the current government.

The party also slams Norway’s EEA agreement with the European Union, claiming that it “puts pressure on Norwegian values, because it challenges popular rule.” Underneath the Center’s recently adopted populist pledges are long-standing stances against Oslo: support for agricultural tariffs, culling wolves, rural post and hospitals, and decentralized spending decisions on oil funds. But unlike Europe’s radical right parties, the Center is relatively moderate on immigration policy.

The Center Party’s recent success is a reminder that a populist line — pitting the “corrupt elite” against the “pure people” — is not reserved for anti-immigration or right-wing parties. Indeed, the Center remains more likely to join a Labor-led government than a Conservative coalition.


Figure 1: Trends in Norwegian election polls, 2013-2017
Voter polls show the ups and downs of Norway’s parties since the last parliamentary elections in 2013. Data: Response, Kantar, Norstat, Ipsos, Infact, Sentio, Norfakta, Perduco, Gallup. Figure by authors/Monkey Cage.

2) Labor has won every election since 1927. Can the Conservatives break that run? After 2013, the price of oil, pivotal to the Norwegian economy, fell by 70 percent before partially recovering. The governing coalition responded with tax cuts, an expansive fiscal policy, investment in infrastructure and, for the first time in the country’s history, withdrawing more than it deposited into the sovereign wealth fund, Norway’s massive financial reserve built on oil revenue. The opposition Labor Party scolded Prime Minister Erna Solberg for this latter decision, and blamed the government for rising unemployment rates.

Instead, Labor proposed to reverse two-thirds of the $2.6 billion in tax cuts and increase taxes on the wealthy, while the Conservatives want further income tax cuts.

With growth picking up, Labor’s strong hand on the key question of economic management is weakening. Indeed, the Conservatives are now considered the best party on jobs. Labor and the Conservatives remain locked into a primarily economic tug-of-war, which the Conservatives are winning.

3) Right-wing populists are feeling the effects of a term in government. When the populist right-wing Progress Party entered government for the first time in 2013, its members had good reasons to be pessimistic. Not only had the party seen declining poll numbers since 2009, but commentators assumed that the party would be forced to moderate once in power and lose its base — or prove itself incapable of responsible administration. By and large, neither prediction came to pass.

Instead, the Progress Party has become increasingly tangential as voters have focused on Labor and the Conservatives as the obvious sources of solutions to Norway’s economic headaches, while looking elsewhere, not least to the Center Party, for an anti-elite choice. The only exception to this was a sudden shot in the arm in late 2015 after  the most acute phase of the migration crisis. Afterward, as public concern about incoming migrants faded, the Progress Party gradually returned to its prior polling levels.

Progress politicians have revisited the immigration issue but headline-grabbing publicity stunts have seemingly fallen flat in the campaign.

4) For Norway’s smaller parties, it’s an open race

Either the Labor or Conservative leader will be Norway’s next prime minister, but how the governing coalition shakes out is more uncertain than ever. With the two largest parties both weaker than in 2013, some seats probably will shift to a slew of minor parties hoping to break the 4 percent electoral threshold and play kingmaker in coalition negotiations.

All minor parties will be keenly aware that after negotiations, their power tends to wane along with their poll ratings, as happened to the Socialist Left and Center after 2005. But after dirtying its sheets with the boisterous Progress Party, the Conservatives may find it harder than before to form a coalition. Moreover, should the Center Party do well in Monday’s election, then Labor will have its own populist party with which to do business.

The big question is how much genuine ground the Conservatives have made up against Labor during the campaign.

Editor’s note: This post was updated on 9/8/2017 to clarify the Liberal Party’s position. We regret the error.

James Dennison is a research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, where he was awarded a PhD in political science in 2017. His research interests include political behavior, European politics and attitudes to immigration. He is the author of “The Greens in British Politics (Palgrave, 2016).” He tweets @JamesRDennison.

Jonas Bergan Draege is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. His research focuses on political behavior and party politics, particularly in the Middle East. He finished his PhD in political science at the European University Institute in 2017. He tweets @JonasDraege.