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Norway's centre-right clear election favourite

Norway's opposition leader Erna Solberg (right) and PM Jens Stoltenberg in a TV debate in Oslo, on September 6, 2013
Norway's main opposition leader Erna Solberg (right) and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg take part in a national TV debate in Oslo, on September 6, 2013.

Norway's centre-right opposition looks set to oust Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Monday's general election, paving the way for an anti-immigration party to enter government two years after right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik's deadly attacks.

As voting opened in parts of the country on Sunday, a poll in the daily Aftenposten credited the four centre-right parties with 54.3 percent of voter support, which would give them a comfortable majority of 95 of 169 seats in parliament.

"You have to go back to 1953 to find an election in Norway where the result was more pre-determined," Bergen University political scientist Frank Aarebrot said.

"I think nobody really believes that the red-green coalition (the ruling Labour-led coalition) can win the election. Nobody."

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg poses for a photograph during a visit to Trondheim, on August 31, 2013
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg poses for a photograph during a visit to Trondheim, on August 31, 2013.

Stoltenberg's centre-left coalition, composed of his Labour Party, the Left Socialists and Centrists, garnered just 39 percent of voter sympathies in Aftenposten's poll, which would translate to 68 seats in parliament

In government since 2005 -- an unusually long tenure in Norway -- the centre-left is seen as suffering from power fatigue, ironic as it may seem since the oil-rich nation enjoys an exceptionally robust economy in Europe with almost no unemployment and very high living standards.

"If we change the government from time to time, every election or every second election maybe, it's good for the country," said Stig Bredal Eriksen, a businessman in the western town of Bergen, the hometown of Conservative leader Erna Solberg who is tipped to become the next prime minister.

"The red-greens have had their chance for eight uninterrupted years. Voters seem to think the time has come for different solutions, but not risky ones," Aftenposten's chief editor for its political pages, Harald Stanghelle, wrote on Saturday.

Factfile on Norway
Factfile on Norway, which holds a general election on September 9, 2013.

Stoltenberg's coalition has also been criticised for authorities' failures to prevent Breivik's July 22, 2011 attacks that left 77 people dead, when he set off a van bomb at the foot of the government offices in Oslo before opening fire on a Labour youth camp on Utoeya island.

"People started asking, 'if they have bad governability of the police, maybe they also have bad governability of caring for the elderly or the schools and so on'," explained Aarebrot.

In another ironic twist, the right-wing's widely anticipated victory is expected to open the door for the populist Progress Party to join government for the first time in its 40-year history.

The party is anti-immigration, and Breivik was a member until 2006.

But it has clearly distanced itself from Breivik and toned down its rhetoric on immigrants, and no one in Norway associates the party with Breivik's carnage -- an issue that has been noticeably absent from the campaign.

Other topics such as healthcare, education, taxes and how to best use Norway's vast oil wealth have instead dominated the run-up to the election.

"I do believe that Breivik is irrelevant" in the campaign, said Peter Linge Hessen, a young Labour party campaigner who survived the Utoeya massacre.

He said he was "obviously disappointed that the right-wing party has gained so much influence, but that's democracy."

The Progress Party, led by Siv Jensen, has been credited with around 15 percent support in the polls.

It looks set to lose about a third of its support compared to the previous legislative elections in 2009, and slip from its position as the second-biggest party in parliament to the third.

While the centre-right -- made up of the Conservatives, the Progress Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals -- is widely expected to win, the exact shape of its future coalition and its political programme have not been hammered out yet, as they depend on how much voter support each party obtains.

The most likely scenario is a minority government made up of the Conservatives and the Progress Party. The smaller Christian Democrats and the Liberals would not be in the government, but would provide backing in parliament to pass legislation.

Significant differences divide the four parties, in particular the issues of immigration, the environment and how to use Norway's oil fund -- the world's largest sovereign wealth fund worth some $750 billion (570 billion euros), which the populists want to dip into to finance their election promises.

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