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Norwegians vote in general election, close race seen

world Updated: Sep 14, 2009 11:38 IST
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Norwegians vote on Monday in a general election that is expected to be a close race, as the outgoing left-wing coalition fights for survival despite boasting one of the world's most prosperous economies.

Public opinion polls have predicted a neck-and-neck challenge between the left-wing government -- made up of the Labour Party and its junior partners the Socialist Left and Centrists -- and four right-wing opposition parties who want to oust the left but have yet to agree on an alliance to take over.

Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, in power since 2005, has campaigned on his success at steering Norway through the global economic crisis with little harm done to the economy thanks to a massive state pension fund made up of almost all of the state's oil revenues.

The so-called "oil fund", invested in international stocks and bonds and designed to finance the needs of the generous social welfare state the day the wells run dry, is worth 277 billion euros (395 billion dollars).

While most western economies have been floored by the economic crisis, Norway, the world's fifth-biggest exporter of 'black gold', experienced only a brief recession and enjoys Europe's lowest unemployment rate at just 3.0 percent.

A non-member of the European Union -- an issue largely ignored throughout the election campaign -- Norway also has the world's second-highest gross domestic product per capita, behind Luxembourg.

But the government has faced a tough challenge from the right-wing opposition, dominated by the populist Progress Party and its leader Siv Jensen, as Norwegians gripe that they have not reaped enough of the benefits of Norway's oil wealth.

The opposition parties have vowed to cut taxes and launch a privatisation programme if elected.
The Progress Party, which is credited with up to 25 percent of voter sympathies, has also pledged to use more of the oil wealth to improve the social welfare state and invest in infrastructure.
For practical reasons, 205 of 430 municipalities allowed voters to begin casting their ballots on Sunday.

"The latest polls are good for us but I'm tense," Stoltenberg said Sunday as he voted in an Oslo school, news agency NTB reported.

Meanwhile, if the four right-wing parties do manage to win a majority of the 169 seats in parliament, they face a challenge to form a government.

Two centre-right parties have refused to collaborate with the populists because of their anti-immigration stance.

Observers have suggested that could pave the way for a minority government headed by Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, 48, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a minority cabinet headed by Stoltenberg's Labour Party.

Minority governments are common in Norway, where members of parliament are elected to a four-year term.