Norway has a new prime minister, but my vote goes to the king

It’s hard to get excited about elections in a foreign country. You can’t vote. You’re cautious when discussing the candidates because you’re not sure how to pronounce their names. It would take a dramatic change for a new government to affect expats, anyway.

But I learned a lot about the politics of my own homeland while watching the electoral process up close in Norway during the election campaign over the last month. It’s so different from how things works in the U.S.

For one thing, Norway has 7 different political parties giving its 5.1 million people varied representation in parliament.

The Norwegian government is usually made up of three or four parties. You need 85 out of 169 seats in parliament to form a government and a single party never gets that much support. Instead, the parties form coalitions by negotiating a common platform to govern together, with the leader of the largest of the group claiming the post of prime minister.

Jens StoltenbergAfter eight years of seeing the rather handsome Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg lead the nation, Norwegians last week voted him out. Campaigning lasted just six weeks and there were no TV or radio adverts. Campaigners representing the Labor Party handed out red roses, which is their symbol. Other parties handed out balloons and free bottles of water, and loads and loads of flyers.

Covering the campaign as part of the foreign media was a blast. I learned that Norwegian politicians are the least self-centered of their kind. It was obvious from the beginning that a woman named Erna Solberg, who leads Norway’s Conservative Party, would become the next prime minister. When she met with the Foreign Press Association of Oslo, just four days before election day, a reporter asked: How do you want to be remembered as prime minister, after your tenure ends?

Her response was shocking: she told the reporter how she wants her party remembered for how it governed, not her specifically. Her answer wasn’t rehearsed or condescending, it was genuine. While campaigning Solberg represents her party, not herself.

The most refreshing part of Norway’s parliamentary process is that the personal lives of government ministers and parliamentarians are largely left out of campaigning. When Solberg made her victory speech her children, husband and elderly mother weren’t on stage with her. She was on stage on her own, representing her party which had just won voter approval to form a government with its coalition partners. That stage was no place for her family to be milling about. Erna Solberg was at work.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little Norwegian voters, journalists and political rivals care about how many pets a leading candidate has, if she ever inhaled marijuana or whether she likes to hunt. The national media wasn’t even concerned that the Conservative Party’s second deputy is gay or that Solberg is a woman (Norway crossed the rubicon for a first female head of state decades ago).

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

While politicians in Norway are no saints (you can read about perverted Norwegians in politics here and here), they do a clean job of keeping extra-marital activities, sexual preferences, their spouses fashion choices, wack-job families and favorite flavor of ice cream out of the electoral process.

Norwegians leave all of that for its royal family.

King Harald V, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit absorb all of the tabloid gossip, media scrutiny and paparazzi, diverting attention away from the personal lives of heads of state and lawmakers.

Although the royal family don’t have any real power in government, they play one very important role in politics: they unite their people behind a leader.

Election debates tend to have a polarizing effect on society, heating up over everything from taxes to care for the elderly and immigration. And when the polls have closed and all of the ballots have been counted, those who voted for the loser can feel leaderless.

That’s where King Harald comes in.

When a new government is elected in Norway the sitting prime minister submits his resignation to King Harald and makes an official recommendation as to who should be the next head of state.

Norway's royal family

Norway’s royal family

The prime minister, always respectful of the parliamentary process, puts forward the leader of the largest party to form the next government, and the king in turn accepts this recommendation. In this case it’s Erna Solberg, head of Norway’s Conservative Party.

I used to think this kind of thing was stupid. But what I didn’t realize was that a royal family always has the respect of the nation, while no one politician ever does. The people’s respect and trust in King Harald unites those whose favorite party or candidate didn’t win to behind their new leader.

If Erna Solberg is fit to be the king’s prime minister then she must be fit to lead everyone.

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An economics lesson from an English major

Norway should not have any potholes.

In fact, the country should have heated sidewalks, gold-plated taxis and elephant tusk toothbrushes. Norway is so loaded that it should pay people to have children. (Wait, it kind of already does.)

I’ve raved so much about this country that some of my local friends have become weary of my seemingly inscrutable positivity. Well, I’m going to tell you Norway’s attributes again (but if you stay with me there is a rant imminent). Besides the natural beauty of the fjords, this country offers:

  • an excellent model of universal health care
  • extravagant parental benefits
  • subsidized education
  • social welfare programs
  • peacemaking efforts around the world
  • overseas humanitarian assistance

On top of all that, various surveys have deemed it the best place in the world to be a mom and the second happiest country.

How is it that this remote country, which quietly creeps an arm along Sweden and Finland and into the Arctic Circle, is able to give it’s people such a great lifestyle and have something to spare for the rest of the world?

One word: oil.

Norway produces more than 2.3 million barrels of oil a day. With a meager population under 5 million there’s no way it can spend all that extra cash, so it created a place for it: the Oil Fund.

The fund is growing every second – if you click here you’ll get a glimpse of it changing in real-time. Its investments include stocks of companies on every continent, giving it a 1% share of all global equities. Since the fund was established in 1990 Norway has saved 3.7 trillion kroner ($660 billion). By the end of next year, it’s expected to reach a whapping 4.4 trillion kroner.

President Obama probably wishes he had the same economic “problem” that Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has.

The brains managing Norway’s oil riches are economic genius’. They’re the people your mom wants you to learn how to budget your money from. Rather than spending frivolously, say on heated sidewalks, Norway is doing three things with it’s bulging oil wealth:

  • allowing a small fraction of it into it’s economy today
  • saving it for future Norwegians when the country’s oil reserves are dry
  • sharing its good fortune with the rest of the world

Next year Norway plans to spend 30.2 billion kroner ($5.3 billion) to fight world poverty. That’s on top of millions spent in peacemaking efforts (Colombia, Philippines, etc.) and the billions in humanitarian and environmental efforts led by Norwegian NGOs.

Norway has taken the idea of spreading the wealth seriously but it’s careful how it uses the oil profits at home. Here’s where things get tricky. According to various principles of economics, if Norway allows too much of it’s oil wealth into its budget it could overheat the economy (that explains why there are potholes.)

The government is able to use up to 4% of the Oil Fund’s returns in its state budget. While Spain and Greece are in economic free fall, Norway’s coffers are so robust it can’t even use it’s whole quota of oil revenue for fear of stoking inflation. For the upcoming year, the state is using only 3.3%, or 125 billion kroner ($22 billion), while the rest comes from its tax base.

President Obama probably wishes he had the same economic “problem” that Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has.

Now for the rant that I promised you. A look at this dilemma from the taxpayers’ perspective is less appetizing. Norway is setting even more aside for the future while today’s workers are facing an increase in taxes – imported cheese and beef are going up by 277% and 344%, respectively. This means that my favorite mac ‘n cheese at Café Fedora will become so unaffordable that the restaurant will either stop serving it or alter the flawless recipe.

In a country that already has scant choices at the grocery store and has the highest grocery bills in the world, this is preposterous. Already thousands of Norwegians flock to Sweden for cheaper groceries, this will only challenge more to follow suit.

I may not understand global economics but I do understand household budgets and based on that, I support a motion for free groceries in Norway for a month – who’s with me?