Thin ice in Norway

IN reelecting the conservative party coalition government of Prime Minister Kaare Willoch by a paper-thin one-seat margin, the Norwegian electorate has sent an ambivalent but still discernible signal to the nation's political leaders: Voters have underscored their longstanding commitment to the nation's extensive welfare state. At the same time, the electorate has indicated its eagerness to seek ways of continuing to reform and modernize the Norwegian economy, while avoiding unnecessary taxes.

The Swedish electorate, which goes to the polls this weekend, is surely watching the results in neighboring Norway with keen interest.

Public-opinion polls in Sweden also indicate a close vote on whether or not the incumbent socialist government of Prime Minister Olof Palme will be returned to office. Mr. Palme's government has managed to retain power only by drawing on support from the country's small but influential Communist Party. Now, with unemployment and inflation both high by long-term Swedish standards, there is growing disquiet about the nation's current leadership.

Meantime, in Norway, Mr. Willoch's victory, although a squeaker in political terms, is impressive when measured against modern Norwegian history. He becomes the first conservative prime minister to win a second term in this century. But the conservative coalition's governing grip in the Storting, Norway's parliament, is tenuous at best. The conservative coalition won 78 seats, whereas the left -- the Labor Party and its ally, the Socialist Left Party -- captured 77 seats. The Labor Party has commanded broad public support in modern Norwegian politics.

Given the close election outcome, Mr. Willoch's task will now be especially difficult. Although unemployment is low and the country prosperous, much of that prosperity is built upon North Sea oil development. Many of the country's small farmers, and certainly families dependent for their livelihood upon fishing and mining, have felt left out of recent economic gains. Their concern has been that Mr. Willoch's efforts to impose restraints on the nation's costly social welfare programs have come at their e xpense. Thus, not surprisingly, many of those voters cast their ballots for the labor-socialist coalition this week.

Still, Mr. Willoch, a businessman and economist, is expected to promote greater business development for the Norwegian economy. Norway must look beyond oil development -- and such traditional industries as farming, fishing, and mining -- if the nation is to continue to grow in the decades ahead. And that, to a large extent, must mean development in high technology and small manufacturing plants.

To govern, however, Mr. Willoch may well have to look for support from the right-wing Progressive Party. But that party, which has called for a major restructuring of Norway's welfare system, is looked upon with disdain by many of the centrist members of Mr. Willoch's governing coalition.

The prime minister also faces new challenges on another front -- national-security issues. Although most Norwegians approve of the nation's link with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, there is a sizable antinuclear, antimilitary constituency within the country that would like to impose limits on defense ties with the West. It is noted that Sweden is not a member of NATO. Thus, vocal opposition to any Norwegian participation in the American ``star wars'' antimissile program is expected to grow in t he months ahead.

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