How do elections work in Norway?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 9th September 2021

Like most European countries, Norway first adopted proportional representation in the early 20th century, with this October representing 100 years since Norwegians elected their first proportional parliament. Next Monday, Norwegians again go to the polls, though unlike in other parliamentary systems, the timing of this election was never in doubt as the Norwegian constitution prohibits early elections in virtually all circumstances. Ahead of the vote, we thought we’d take a look at how elections in Norway work.

The voting system

The Norwegian parliament – the Storting – is currently comprised of 169 MPs, with Norway divided into 19 constituencies based on its former counties, each electing between 4 and 20 MPs. Whereas most countries apportion seats based on population or electorate figures, the number of MPs a constituency in Norway returns is determined by a formula that accounts for both population and area. This is a deliberate attempt to slightly overrepresent the very sparsely populated, rural parts of Norway, but has been criticised for effectively giving rural voters additional electoral weight compared to urban ones.

When going to vote, Norwegians aren’t confronted with a single ballot paper. Rather, each party has its own ballot paper listing all of its candidates in the party’s preferred order. Voters choose one of the ballot papers from inside the polling booth and are able to reorder the candidates or ‘strike’ and reject them. If a party wins enough votes to take four seats, the top four candidates on the list will be elected. However, while this has the design of an open list system (where voters can change the order of the list), the thresholds to actually change the ordering on a list are so high as to make the Norwegian system a closed list (where parties set the order) in practice.

All but one seat in each constituency is allocated based on the vote in that constituency, as per a standard list PR election. But the final seat is instead allocated at the national level. These 19 ‘adjustment’ seats are open to all parties that have won 4% of the vote nationwide and were introduced in the 1980s to compensate for Norway’s small constituencies skewing the results in favour of larger parties, particularly Labour. Once they have been awarded to the parties, they are each reallocated to one of the constituencies based on the relative performance of the parties.

The adjustment seats enable the Norwegian voting system to combine high levels of proportionality with small and familiar constituencies without creating two types of MP. But, as with any allocation based on relative performance, there is a risk of creating bizarre results at the constituency level. In 2017, Labour won 28% of vote and the Conservatives 26% in the Oslo constituency, gaining them both five direct seats. But the Conservatives won three adjustment seats, one of which was then allocated to Oslo – giving them more MPs there than Labour who had won more votes.

Parties and Government

As with so much about Norway, its party system is also recognisably Scandinavian – having a long-time dominance by the social democratic Labour Party, frequent yet often stable minority governments and a clear two-bloc party system.

The red bloc, and Norwegian politics in general, has long been dominated by the Labour Party who have consistently held the most seats in the Storting since 1927 and have been in government for just shy of two-thirds of the post-war period. Traditionally, Labour governed alone – as a majority from 1945 to 1961 and as a minority on multiple occasions from then until 2001. Things changed in 2005, when Labour formed a ‘red-green’ coalition alongside the Socialist Left Party – the other longstanding presence in the bloc – and the primarily rural-interest Centre Party – who had recently crossed the floor. The coalition was re-elected with minimal losses in 2009.

The opposing blue bloc, which has been in power under Conservative PM Erna Solberg since 2013, has usually been a more balanced affair. Though the Conservatives have typically been the largest party on the centre-right, the Liberals, Christian Democrats and Centre Party (part of the blue bloc until the early 2000s) have all challenged them for this position at some point.

The bloc has been somewhat disrupted in recent years by the emergence of the right-wing populist Progress Party, who have been the second-largest party after three of the last six elections. Although typically regarded as less right-wing than many other such parties, its presence in the bloc has created tensions with other parties – particularly with the Liberals.

Blue governments have historically been intermittent and frequently short-lived – the current government is the first non-Labour government in over 100 years to complete two full terms. Typically, these centre-right coalitions have involved some parties from the bloc being in government with the others supporting from outside – often as part of formal agreements, though not always. Solberg’s current coalition has had all four parties in cabinet at some point, with Progress serving alongside the Conservatives from 2013-20, the Liberals taking seats in 2018 and the Christian Democrats in 2019.

As for what will happen next Monday, polls currently indicate a victory for the red bloc and a likely end to Norway’s longest period without a Labour PM since the 1920s. Alongside gains for the Socialist Left and Centre parties, polls also suggest that the Green Party and far-left Red Party will cross the 4% threshold for the first time. Whatever happens, new governing arrangements will likely be decided fairly quickly.

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