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Norway goes to the polls

OSLO, Norway -- Norway's ruling Labor Party is tipped to suffer one of its worst electoral performance in nearly 80 years.

Advance voting started on Sunday with Norwegians angry about high taxes and poor public service despite vast oil wealth.

Balloting was to begin Monday, but about 500,000 of the nation's roughly 3.3 million voters already had sent in postal ballots. Final results are due on Wednesday.

Opinion polls indicate that none of the three main blocs -- the current Labor minority government, the Conservatives and a three-party moderate coalition -- would get the majority needed to form a government.

The surveys suggest that Labor could face its worst election since 1924, as supporters of Norway's long-dominant party appeared to move to the Socialist Left Party or to the Conservatives.

In a poll of 1,000 people published Sunday by the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, 24.1 percent of those asked supported Labor.

The poll listed the Conservatives with 21.9 percent and the Socialist Left soaring to 16 percent, compared with 6 percent in 1997.

Labor has not said whether it would resign if its support is disappointing.

"This is incredibly exciting. It could be a real crossroads," said Jan Petersen, the Conservative leader who hopes to oust Labor and has promised tax cuts.

"We risk a fragmented parliament," he said as he voted at a polling station in a school on Sunday afternoon near Oslo.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg heads one of the world's richest nations.

He became the nation's youngest prime minister last year at age 41 after he and his Labor Party ousted a three-party moderate coalition led by Christian Democrat Kjell Magne Bondevik in a parliamentary showdown.

Norway, with some 4.5 million people, keeps billions of kroner (dollars) a year of surplus revenue in the Government Petroleum Fund for foreign investment to avoid overheating the nation's economy.

But rival parties have blasted Labor for clinging to oil wealth, rather than using it to ease some of Europe's highest taxes and to end shortages in health care, education, child care and other services.

The campaign has focused on high taxes, complaints about shortages of services in the Scandinavian nation's cradle-to-grave welfare state and spending more oil wealth.

Norway is the world's second-largest oil exporter, after Saudi Arabia, so some say Monday's national election could even influence prices at global gas pumps over the next four years.






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