Norway World's happiest country mulls change of course

Europe has since shut it borders, Oslo has tightened its immigration policy, and the flow of refugees has dwindled.

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Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg hopes voters in 'the happiest country in the world' will put a fresh smile on her face on polling day play

Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg hopes voters in 'the happiest country in the world' will put a fresh smile on her face on polling day

(AFP)
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You can be the happiest people in the world and still toy with the idea of change: oil-rich Norway votes Monday in a general election seen as uncomfortably close for the outgoing rightwing government.

Opinion polls suggest only a few votes may determine whether Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg or her Labour challenger Jonas Gahr Store will lead the country for the next four years.

"It's easier to be blamed for things that are not going well than to get credit for things that go well," noted University of Oslo political science professor Bernt Aardal.

"You can see that the affluence of the Norwegian voters also leads to increased expectations. It is very difficult for any party to fulfil those expectations," he added.

The happy country

After coming to power in 2013, the government -- made up of the Conservatives and the "soft" populist Progress Party -- has had to contend with two serious and simultaneous challenges.

The migrant crisis that swept across Europe saw a record 31,000 people seek asylum in 2015 in Norway, a country of 5.3 million. And the oil industry, the main driver of the Norwegian economy, has been hit since 2014 by the sharpest drop in oil prices in 30 years.

Europe has since shut it borders, Oslo has tightened its immigration policy, and the flow of refugees has dwindled.

Thanks to tax cuts and hefty withdrawals from the country's sovereign wealth fund -- worth almost $1 trillion just 20 years after its first deposit of oil revenues -- Norway has enjoyed a robust return to growth, depriving the opposition of an easy line of attack.

"Now that the Norwegian economy is improving, it's important not to change course," insists 56-year-old Solberg, presenting herself as the safeguard for continued success.

The cherry on the cake: Norway was in March named the happiest country in the world in a respected UN report.

A 'colder' Norway?

Despite the glowing report card, Store has accused the rightwing government of making Norway a "colder" place, championing himself as the defender of the less advantaged.

Leader of main oposition party Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party) Jonas Gahr Store sees himself as defender of the less advantaged play

Leader of main oposition party Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party) Jonas Gahr Store sees himself as defender of the less advantaged

(NTB SCANPIX/AFP)

The opposition leader has promised to reverse tax cuts benefiting "the richest" and to beef up the welfare state.

"We have a strong immune defence against social things we've seen in other countries," the 57-year-old Labour leader told AFP.

"But we are not immune, which means that we too have increasing inequality."

Public opinion remains very divided, and editorialists have predicted an "election thriller".

"We want change," said Silje Krokeide, a medicine postdoc visiting a Labour campaign hut on Oslo's busiest avenue. "We want more equality, that's important for me. And we also want to take better care of the environment."

Eirik, a 69-year-old entrepreneur, is among those who want the right to stay in power. "They've reduced taxes, introduced incentives for establishing new businesses, they've built roads and invested in police and health care. I think they've done pretty well."

In this prosperous nation addicted to consensus, where the thorny question of EU membership has been sidelined for the foreseeable future, there are few issues that divide society.

Amid a busy election year across Europe, Norway's election campaign has largely escaped the rising populist trend seen elsewhere.

The two main fringe parties have served in coalition governments over the past 12 years, which has helped "neutralise" them, according to political science professor Bernt Aadal.

And apart from a few controversial outings by Immigration and Integration Minister Sylvi Listhaug, of the anti-immigration Progress Party, the campaign has been scandal-free.

The election outcome will depend on the scores of smaller parties, as both the Conservatives and Labour depend on their support in parliament to form a government and pass legislation.

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