Norway's right-wing parties drop offshore oil ambitions in order to govern

The right-wing Conservative and Progress parties started talks today to form a minority government, but needed to drop drilling plans to get support.

By , Correspondent

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    Erna Solberg (l.), leader of the Conservative Party, and Siv Jensen, leader of the Progress Party, face the media as they declare that they have agreed to form a new government, in Oslo on Monday. Ms. Solberg is widely considered to be the leading Prime Ministerial candidate.
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After two weeks of tough political wrangling, Norway's Conservative and Progress Party today began formal talks to establish a two-party, right-wing minority government.

But the green lighting of the talks came at a price, as the Conservative-Progress coalition agreed to abandon plans for oil drilling off Norway's northern coast in exchange for the backing of two centrist parties it needs to form a government.

“This is the most committed agreement in Norwegian government history,” said Conservative leader and presumptive Prime Minister Erna Solberg in a press conference at parliament yesterday evening. “We have never had such a large cooperation amongst the non-socialists.”

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Ms. Solberg was given the task of forming a new government after the Labor party, Norway's largest, failed to gain enough votes with its socialist partners in last month's election to maintain a majority in parliament. The Conservatives and Progress Party came in second and third respectively in the election.

The unprecedented political agreement, signed last night with the centrist Christian Democrats and Liberal parties, allows the Conservative-Progress coalition to form a government with only 77 out of 169 parliamentary seats. Although the Christian Democrats and Liberals will not sit in the new government, their support – they hold 19 seats between them – gives the coalition government sufficient backing in parliament to form.

The four parties failed to reach an agreement to form a majority center-right coalition government – Solberg’s preferred solution – but was not altogether unexpected. The Christian Democrats, who prioritize family and human rights, warned in advance that it was problematic to sit in a government with the Progress Party because of its liberal ideology concerning alcohol and economics, as well as its stricter stance on immigration.

“This is not surprising,” Kjell Magne Bondevik, a former Christian Democratic prime minister and Lutheran minister, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “They stand politically pretty far from each other.”

Trade-off

But in exchange for Christian Democrats and Liberal backing on certain key issues for the next four years, the new government will freeze its efforts to open up the environmentally sensitive areas offshore the districts of Lofoten and Vesterålen and the island of Senja for petroleum exploration during the next four years.

This has been a burning issue for the centrist parties under the previous Labor-led government, who had been moving toward a possible opening of this promising oil province.

Gro Brækken, director general at the Norwegian Oil and Gas Industry Association, criticized the political agreement as a “democratic problem” given that there is a parliamentary majority to proceed with an environmental impact analysis in this area, a precursor to exploration.

“Far too much has been conceded [by the Conservative and Progress Parties,] to the Christian Democrats and Liberals,” said Ms. Braekken in a press statement.

The new coalition has also proposed granting amnesty to child asylum seekers who have been in the country more than three years and had their applications refused in exchange for a tougher asylum policy to others going forward.

The Progress Party, which has the toughest stance on immigration in Norway, cited the stricter asylum policy as a political win, along with plans to ramp up spending on infrastructure projects in the country.

Siv Jensen, the Progress Party leader, arrived at Sundvolden Hotel today to begin formal government negotiations with Solberg in preparation for taking over after the current Labor-led government presents its final national budget on Oct. 14. Among the key remaining questions are how the new government will be able to alter the budget to include its planned tax cuts and additional expenditures and the make-up of the new cabinet. This election marks the first time the Progress Party sits in government in its 40-year history.

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