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Norwegians have begun voting in several large cities in parliamentary elections expected to bring the centre-left opposition to power after a race dominated by the future of oil and the climate crisis.
Opinion polls point to a convincing win for the bloc led by the Labour party. Such an outcome would end an unprecedented eight years of centre-right rule in the wealthy, oil-producing Scandinavian nation. But it is unclear how many parties will enter parliament and which will be part of a new government.
The official election day is Monday, but voting got under way on Sunday in the capital Oslo, the main oil city Stavanger and Arctic town Bodo, among others. More than a third of the electorate have already cast their votes in advance.
The future of oil in western Europe’s largest petroleum producer has dominated the run-up to the polls as small parties demanded Norway take more dramatic action to combat climate change. The Greens have said they will only support a coalition that immediately stops all exploration for the fossil fuel.
Victory would mean a centre-left prime minister in all five Nordic countries simultaneously for the first time since 1959 and would vindicate Jonas Gahr Store, the former Labour foreign and health minister, after his defeat in the previous elections in 2017. Store is favourite to head the next Norwegian government.
“He is going to be a strong prime minister with a long-term vision for the future. He knows the oil and energy transition well. And it’s also important in this complicated world out there that he has international experience. People will be confident when Putin picks up the phone,” ex-Labour foreign minister Espen Barth Eide told the Financial Times.
Conservative prime minister Erna Solberg is the first centre-right leader in modern Norwegian history to serve two full terms, but surveys have suggested that the strength of the smaller parties on the left will allow Store to form a coalition and usurp her.
In the last large opinion poll for state broadcaster NRK, the left was on course to win 100 seats in the 169-seat parliament while right-leaning parties would take the remainder. Store’s preferred coalition of Labour, the rural Centre party and the Socialist Left were predicted to be on the cusp of a majority with 84 seats. Labour is set to be the biggest single party with about a quarter of the vote compared with a fifth for the Conservatives, according to the poll.
Should the three main centre-left parties fall short, Store would need the support of either the communist Red party or the Greens, both of which he has criticised over their desire to set an end date for oil production.
“To close down an industry like Red and the Greens want to is like throwing people into the sea and then throwing the rescue rings in afterwards. This is a high-risk game and backwards climate policy,” Store told Dagbladet newspaper.
Some political observers think a possible compromise could be to restrict or even end oil exploration in the Norwegian Arctic. Companies have in any case been turning their back on the Barents Sea area after disappointing exploration results.
Eide, Labour’s energy spokesman, said Labour was aware that the oil age was “coming to a close” but believed in a gradual transition away from petroleum to a greener economy. He added that companies seemed to want to explore near their current fields in the Norwegian and North Seas rather than in the Arctic.
“It is increasingly likely there won’t be much [oil] in the Barents Sea . . . It might be better to find things closer to existing production,” he added.
The election campaign was low-key until the release of a landmark UN climate report last month, with the organisation’s secretary-general warning it was now “code red” for humanity.
Environmental parties such as the Greens, Socialist Left and the centre-right Liberals all benefited from a rise in the polls following publication of the report, while the pro-oil Centre party has suffered a steady decline in recent months.
Both the Labour and Conservative parties back the oil industry but believe its importance for Norway will decline as production falls in the coming decades.
Labour believed the centre-right government had been too slow in making the transition to a green economy and the left would have a more interventionist industrial policy, said Eide.
Norway gives generous subsidies to electric cars, which now represent almost three-quarters of new vehicle sales, and is investing heavily in expensive carbon capture and storage. But neighbouring Denmark has been far more successful in the bigger wind turbine industry through manufacturer Vestas and developer Orsted.