Driven to despair: road toll charges take centre stage in Norway vote

By Daniel Boffey in Brussels

Regional elections in Norway on Monday are being billed as a referendum on the country’s environmental policies, with the country split over road toll rises that have already threatened to bring down the national government.

A sharp increase in motorway toll and congestion charges in recent years has helped fuel a political movement that is proving a threat to mainstream parties in a number of major cities.

A new anti-tolls party, People’s Action – No to More Road Tolls (FNB), is forecast to make major gains at the expense of the populist Progress party, one of the governing parties in the national coalition, but also Labour and the right.

Norway’s politicians suffered a major shock in May when polls had the anti-toll party on 25.4% of the vote in the city of Bergen and 6% nationally, making it the fifth-largest party, although its numbers have since dropped.

Trym Aafløy, the FNB’s leader in Bergen, told a TV debate this week: “We have created a political earthquake in Norway.”

The anger against the rise in toll charges, and the manner in which it has dominated political debate, can in part be attributed to Norwegians’ love of cars. For every 1,000 citizens there are 514 cars, second only to Germany in car ownership among European nations.

The issue is particularly toxic for Progress, which presents itself as the motorists’ party, and from which the current minister of transport is drawn.

The anti-toll protest is seen by some as a Nordic variant on the gilets jaunes movement in France, representing a backlash against the imposition of extra costs on drivers in the name of environmental protection.

Such is the anger that Sindre Finnes, the husband of Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, was briefly dragged into the issue due to his previous shareholdings in companies that make money at toll booths.

The FNB is expected to do particularly well in Oslo, Bergen and Stavanger, where the anti-toll party was founded in 2014.

In August, Solberg narrowly escaped presiding over a minority government when there was conflict between two of the four parties in her coalition, Progress and the centrist Liberals, over how to pay for roads and public transport. The rightwing Progress party has been calling for large cuts to road tolls, a policy opposed by the Liberals.

The coalition’s compromise involved an agreement that the state will increase its financial contribution in public-private partnerships – so-called 50/50 projects – to 66% to fund a cut in the costs to motorists on toll roads. The increase in toll charges on motorways and in big cities has left motorists faced with paying hundreds of pounds more a year.