Norway’s PM stresses jobs ahead of tight vote


Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said on Saturday keeping Norwegians in jobs was his top priority in the global downturn and urged voters to return his centre-left to power in Monday’s parliamentary election.

Opinion polls put Stoltenberg’s centre-left coalition neck-and-neck with the centre-right opposition in a race that will determine if the oil-producing nation opens new Arctic regions for exploration and how it spends its oil windfall.

A survey by Synovate showed the Labour-led government winning 89 seats in the 169-member parliament, while a poll by TNG Gallup showed late on Friday the opposition taking 89 seats.

Stoltenberg said “jobs for all” was his priority and with unemployment below 4 percent in a global recession, his government had demonstrated its ability to safeguard the economy of the world’s No. 5 oil exporter.

“Even in 2009, unemployment is lower than any year under the previous (centre-right) government,” he told a rally in Oslo.

Stoltenberg enjoys wide popularity and is consistently seen in opinion polls as the top choice for prime minister.

“If you want me to be prime minister, you have to vote Labour,” he said, in one of the last campaign stops before the election.

No government has won re-election in Norway since 1996 when the North Sea state began investing its oil windfall into an offshore fund that has now amassed $400 billion worth of stocks and bonds — or $80,000 per citizen.

PUBLIC SERVICES

Given that wealth, sociologists say many Norwegians find it hard to accept months-long queues for medical procedures and a lack of space in public retirement homes, making re-election tougher for governments.

Most parties in Norway’s parliament favour keeping curbs on spending the fund to avoid the economic ills that have hobbled some other resource-rich economies and to preserve the wealth for future generations when the oil runs out.

But the government has boosted spending to cope with the global economic crisis, meaning Norway has fared better than most other countries.

If the Labour-led camp fails to maintain its majority, the splintered centre-right opposition is expected to try to form a government. But deep divisions over how much oil money Norway should spend could derail any such government or allow Labour to rule alone in a minority administration.

In the busy shopping street where Stoltenberg spoke, he was greeted by supporters and critics. Some carried banners displaying their frustration over issues from action against climate change to immigration policies.

“I cannot trust him,” said one woman who works in the health care system, saying she was not happy with how the government has dealt with that sector.

“Stoltenberg was good,” a supporter said. “He has changed, he is calmer,” she said, adding she would vote for him.

Norway’s centre-right has pledged to lower taxes and privatise state companies.

The election may also break years of political gridlock over oil and gas activities in the pristine Lofoten region, shut for exploration. The government is split on the issue, while the main opposition parties back drilling.

Thompson Reuters

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