Erna Solberg’s long reign as the leader of Norway could come to an end next week (September 13) as the Scandinavian country faces its first general election since 2017.
Solberg’s coalition of right and centre-right parties — which has operated as a minority government since 2020 — is likely to be eclipsed by a left-wing coalition headed by Jonas Gahr Støre, a millionaire ally of former prime minister and now NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.
Solberg, first elected in 2013 and then again in 2017, has led the Conservatives since 2004 and is now the country’s longest-serving leader. Due to the length of her tenure, as well as her commitment to economic liberalism, she has been dubbed ‘Iron Erna’ after British leader Margaret Thatcher.
Although Norway has fared relatively well during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one of Europe’s lowest mortality rates, Solberg’s popularity has taken a hit due to unpopular public sector reforms and economic inequality. She was also criticised — and fined by police — for breaking social distancing guidelines at her own birthday party in April.
Norway’s constitution forbids so-called snap elections, so even if a coalition collapses the largest party in it continues to rule as a minority government for the remainder of its term.
Solberg has done so since 2020 when the populist Progress Party withdrew in a row over the repatriation of a woman and her children linked to the Islamic State.
Current polls have Støre’s Labour party winning 49 seats and Solberg’s Conservatives 45, well short of the 85 seats needed to secure a majority.
It would be up to Labour to form a government, probably encompassing the Socialist Left (slated to win 11 seats) and the Centre Party (likely to win 19).
That leaves Støre with 79 seats, still short but able to form a minority government. If he wanted a majority he will have to seek the support of even smaller parties, including the Communists and the Greens, both of which are expected to add to their current single member of parliament.
As well as the growing divide between rich and poor, a key issue for any incoming red-green coalition will be Norway’s oil industry, which contributes as much as 14% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs upwards of 160,000.
The Greens have gone on record as saying that they want to end the oil industry by 2035, and it is not an extreme viewpoint in this country of 5.3 million people, which is western Europe’s largest oil producer: recent polls found that 35% of Norwegians would favour an end to the oil industry.
Even the International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that new fossil fuel exploration must be stopped if global warming is going to be kept under control.
Neither Stolberg nor Støre have committed to halting oil exploration – let alone shutting down Norway’s oil industry – but their potential coalition partners have.
As well as the Greens, the Socialist Left want to put an end to oil. On the right, the Liberals have also made such a promise, AFP reported.
“Oil has its place in the museum,” Ulrikke Torgersen, the Green candidate for Stavanger, the central hub of the country’s oil industry, told AFP.
“We have benefited from it for several decades, but unfortunately we see that it destroys our climate.”
But oil industry representatives and lobbyists counter that Norway’s oil industry is actually relatively environmentally friendly in that it emits a low level of carbon dioxide compared to other oil-producing nations. And while there is no realistic alternative to oil, Norway should keep drilling for it.
“It would be paradoxical to stop the production of hydrocarbons which has the lowest CO2 footprint at a time when the planet still needs it,” said Anniken Hauglie, head of the oil lobby Norsk Olje & Gass.
“We must first give up on other types of fossil fuels, especially coal.”