Norwegian voters reject centre parties

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Wanted urgently: politician to lead one of the world's richest countries. Budget unlimited.

Consumed by public expectations of a spending spree, Norway's almost eternally governing Labour Party has plunged to its lowest share of the vote in nearly a century. But in the chaos that has emerged after elections at the weekend, no viable majority is in sight.

The curse of oil wealth has finally caught up with the political system. Norwegian voters punished Labour for locking away the proceeds of the country's largest industry from their grasping hands. And since other mainstream parties also refused to shower them with billions of petro- dollars parked in offshore accounts, the voters turned to the extremes. The hard left and far right scooped more than one quarter of the votes in total.

The Labour Party, led by Jens Stoltenberg, fetched another quarter of the votes, closely followed by the conservative Right Party. These were the traditional governing parties in the postwar years.

The pattern of Norway's political system has been unravelling in recent years, amid expectations of affluence. But both Labour and the conservatives sought to keep a lid on spending, for fear of stoking inflation. Now the voters, refusing to accept the economic arguments, have turned their backs on both, and fled to parties on the margins that were prepared to shower them with money.

Even without the torrent of petrodollars, most traditional industries have withered in the past decade. Government subsidies penetrate every area of economic life, sustained in turn by a punitive and arbitrary system of taxation. Norwegians' earnings, though among the highest in the world, are eaten away by taxes of every sort. Petrol, cars, food and basic essentials cost up to twice as much in Norway as in neighbouring Sweden. There is full employment, yet many people are poor. Pensions compare unfavourably with those in the more prosperous EU states, and the health service and schools are creaking. The politicians say no money is available to improve these quickly.

Economists concur, but their arguments fall on deaf ears. Aasmund Willesrud, of the Oslo paper Aftenposten, says: "People see how wealthy the country is, but they also see the poverty around them, especially the catastrophic state of the health service."

The far right and the hard left promised to loosen the purse strings, but their ensuing success has only complicated the coalition arithmetic. Norway, the poor little rich state, appears ungovernable.

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