Small but fast-growing Green party, which is demanding an immediate halt to gas and oil exploration, seen as potential kingmaker.
When Truls Gulowsen began campaigning in the 1990s, telling Norway it had both a moral obligation and an economic interest in phasing out the industry that has made it rich was not what might be called a vote winner.
But as Norwegians go to the polls on Monday, the future of their country’s giant oil and gas business is a major electoral issue – with parties that back curbs or even a shutdown of the industry set to play a key role in post-election coalition-building.
“The public mood has changed,” said Gulowsen, who heads Greenpeace Norway. “Something’s really happening. For the first time, our national dependency on oil, our responsibility as oil pushers to the rest of the world, are real questions.”
Pollsters predict an election thriller, with a rightwing bloc headed by the outgoing Conservative prime minister, Erna Solberg, and a leftwing opposition grouping led by the Labour party leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, separated by only a handful of points.
“It looks like it’s going to be very, very close,” said the election analyst Svein Tore Marthinsen. “Both major parties are declining and the landscape is fragmenting – we could have nine parties in parliament, a record. The final outcome is wide open.”
Public opinion certainly is split. “I think the government’s done OK,” said Harald Bergh, 73, a retired engineer. “They’ve spent wisely, cut taxes, kept us afloat. And no one should touch the oil industry – it’s been our salvation.”
Trine Daehlie, a medical student, said she would probably be voting for the small but fast-growing Green party, potential kingmakers demanding an immediate halt to further oil and gas exploration and the end of the entire industry in 15 years.
“We want change, more social justice,” said Daehlie, a first-time voter who until recently planned to back Labour. “But the planet’s the biggest concern. And the green economy is happening everywhere – soon all our oil won’t be worth much.”
In power since 2013, Solberg’s minority government – a coalition between her own centre-right Conservatives and the populist, anti-immigrant Progress party, with parliamentary backing from the smaller Christian Democrat and Liberal parties – has piloted the country through two major challenges.
The collapse in the price of crude oil between 2014 and 2016 had dramatic consequences for Norway’s economy; 50,000 people – a fifth of the industry’s workforce – lost their jobs and state revenues from the sector fell 40%.
Then in 2015, Europe’s migrant crisis saw a record 31,000 people seeking asylum in Norway, inflaming anti-foreigner feeling and prompting a sharp tightening of immigration controls.
Both crises have now subsided. The flow of refugees has dwindled, while unemployment is falling and the economy is growing again – allowing Solberg’s tax-cutting government to claim credit for the recovery.
The migrant crisis and economic downturn were a particular boon to the Progress party, which has disproved the perceived wisdom that populists, once in power, invariably fall from grace.
In steep decline in the polls in 2014, the party – which refuses a far-right label, claiming to be more moderate, less nationalistic and less authoritarian than Europe’s other populists – has bounced back.
“It was saved by those two external crises,” said Anders Jupskås, of Oslo University’s centre for research on extremism. “Surveys show its members are very happy with the Progress party.”
The refugee crisis “reinforced the salience of its core anti-immigration message for its base”, Jupskås said, particularly after a new immigration ministry was handed to the rising Progress party star Silvi Listhaug, a controversial but skilful operator.
And the downturn allowed the junior coalition partner to push for record withdrawals form Norway’s vast, near-$1tn sovereign wealth fund and splash out on popular public projects.
The recovery has, however, deprived Labour of a key plank in its platform, leaving its promises to reverse tax cuts and boost welfare spending to combat inequality less appealing. Its support has dipped ten points in a month.
“It’s like elsewhere,” argued Odd-Inge Kvalheim, the party’s international secretary. “One or two-issue parties are doing well; those that voters expect to have a policy on everything from kindergartens to climate change, and a balanced budget, are not.”
Labour’s slide, however, has opened a door for the Greens and the small Socialist Left party – which also wants significant curbs on the oil industry including changes to generous state tax subsidies for oil exploration.
Polls suggest that between them, the two parties could command 18 seats in the 169-seat parliament – support that Labour, a traditional oil backer, will need if the left finishes narrowly ahead and tries to form the next government.
“We hope to have some leverage in parliament,” said Lars Gaupset, the Greens’ general secretary and campaign manager. “We’ve said we’ll talk to whoever wins, though we won’t work with the Progress party. We’ll push very hard. It’ll depend on how far the major parties will go.”
Even if the right wins on Monday, the current coalition – despite the fiercely pro-oil Progress party’s slogan (“Trust us, we will bring up every drop”) – may have to be flexible: both its smaller parliamentary allies have also said no to continued exploration in Norway’s environmentally sensitive Arctic waters.
With many experts predicting oil demand will peak in the next decade, a survey last month showed that for the first time, more Norwegians favoured leaving some oil in the ground to protect the climate than were in favour of bringing it up.
“The Paris accord commitments focused minds,” said Greenpeace’s Gulowsen, “and the oil price crash showed our oil is not always going to be profitable, and there may actually be an economic risk to relying on it. The mentality has changed.”