What is Bompenger?
You can rarely read much Norwegian media without encountering the overwhelming dominance of Bompenger in coverage of the upcoming elections. It seems that several issues in Norway involve in some way the issue of Bompenger, and given the upcoming local elections scheduled for the 9th of September 2019, the problem is gaining even further significance. In this article I seek to explore why the issue is so important, and what the political parties have to say on Bompenger and where they stand.
For those who are a little uninitiated with Norway, the term itself may be a little confusing, and indeed unclear as to why the issue is mainly dominating the discourse surrounding the elections as is shown below.
In its simplest form, however – Bompenger is typically used to refer to road tolls. Which may lead to you asking why road tolls are having such an outsized impact on an upcoming election, and which have even served to threaten the stability of the national government in what is a wealthy Western European country. Surely one would assume the issue of tolls is one which we all dislike paying, but which have become a regrettable necessity which we must accept where we do have to pay them.
Well, this isn’t the case in Norway, and while several reasons are driving (I couldn’t resist) this uptick in attention paid to road tolls, one factor which is undoubtedly having an impact on the seeming dominance of this issue nationally is that – Norwegians are avid drivers. When we look at a comparison of peer countries and the number of passenger cars per 1000 people, Norwegians are only behind Germans in their eagerness to take to the road.
Given Norway’s unique geography, and high levels of regional dispersion throughout the country, it’s perhaps not surprising to see such high levels of car ownership, however – the costs of driving is a frequent topic which is sure to animate even the calmest Norwegian. Alongside this, the financing of this often expensive road construction is typically borne locally through the widespread usage of tolls to finance the construction, as opposed to central state financing of road projects – herein lies the problem, and one which is sure to be paid significant attention throughout the Norwegian local elections.
Where do the Political Parties stand?
Much of how many of us approach elections in modern times start with a google search, and those who wish to reach us while we search will typically use paid advertisements to reach us on the issues which matter most to us. While this approach is viewed with considerable suspicion in recent times, it’s not necessarily nefarious, it just signals a change in political communication strategies. However, in the course of the research for this piece, I came across two political parties who were avidly using this approach to reach those of us interested in Bompenger. You can see below an example of the ads being targetted at Norwegians (or users in Norway) who are concerned about Bompenger.
However, it’s not just those who are bidding for the keywords which are spurred to taking policy positions on Bompenger, due to the relative success of Folkeaksjonen NEI til mer bompenger (The people say no to more road tolls) – a catchy name, I know. This political party views the current financing of Norwegian roads through tolls as unfair and sees it is the state’s responsibility to provide roads as it’s a common social benefit. Considering the approach of two major political parties in competition for our attention on this issue, it could be understood that the group has been somewhat successful in raising awareness about the issue.
It is precisely this success and effective local organising which has served to ensure that road tolls are sure to play a key part in the upcoming elections. Other parties, however, are not simply sitting this one out as can be seen in the summary of policy positions of the major parties below.
Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party): The AP would like to see more variation introduced into how road tolls are calculated – alongside the state making a larger contribution within urban areas. They specifically see the level of pollution and greater support for public transport as central tenants of their Bompenger policy. However, given their ad spend, it is perhaps an area in which AP believes could allow them to capitalise on the shortfalls within FRP’s handling of the issue.
Høyre (Conservative Party): The Conservatives are seeking to ensure that more roads are built and that where possible tolls are used less, and where they are used, they are being used to cover construction costs rather than interest payments solely. They also aim to reduce the number of active toll companies – what effects this will have on competition remains to be seen. However, as the Conservatives are the dominant party in a national governing coalition, they must temper their Bompenger policy as they could easily be accused of doing very little should they over-promise. In recent days, however, Høyre has sought to put the issue to bed, as can be seen by Prime Ministers Solberg’s approach to addressing the issue outlined in more detail here (sadly it’s only available in Norwegian).
Fremskrittspartiet (The Progress Party): Similar to the challenge faced by the Conservatives, The Progress Party faces the challenge of being in government and seeking to defend the status quo, while at the same time seeking to brandish their credentials as the “Bilistenes parti” (The Motorist Party). As the party who’s minister currently occupies the position of Minister of Transport and Communications (and the party has occupied the department since 2013), their webpage is concerned with Bompenger policy, which reads like a veritable shopping list of road projects completed and offers little in the way of aspirational policy. The Progress Party articulate a position of much the same, and there’s a seeming tinge of “Mission Accomplished” from their website, perhaps naïvely detached from the anger spurned by Bompenger.
Senterpartiet (Centre Party): The Centre Party, rather unsurprisingly take a middle of the road position (I again couldn’t resist), laying out that tolls are sometimes necessary, and sometimes not. While this may seem a rather sanguine attempt at articulating a Bompenger policy, it does at least take account of the shortfalls of public transport in a country which prides itself on holidaying in remote cabins in the hills far away from others. Alongside this, The Centre Party make a case for a state loan guarantee to support road building and take direct aim at the FRP and their legacy in the department of transport.
Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party): The Socialist Left Party take a defensive position of the merits of Bompenger to reduce traffic build-up and pollution, they instead seek to expand the state’s role in developing public transport options within urban areas. They also argue for road pricing that is implemented in a graduated manner so as not to disadvantage lower-income people. Their approach seems to negate the necessity of having a car in favour of the expansion of public transport options within the major cities.
Venstre (Liberal Party): while the Liberal Party does not appear to have a dedicated policy targetted towards Bompenger, they do outline several policies such as improved public-private partnerships and liquidation of the grant scheme for toll projects within their general road policies. Within this, we can further see a flavour of the approach favoured – such as a greater focus on public transport options and greater competition within road construction projects. This lack of a serious approach may in part be due to their role within the current national government.
Kristelig Folkeparti (Christian Democratic Party): The Christian Democratic Party are clear from the outset, road tolls must go, and they should be replaced with road pricing. This is seen as a more equitable way to finance road construction and maintenance. The road pricing system is seen as being possible through the use of GPS tracking device with cars which monitors their usage of the roads in its totality and factors in pollution, noise, loss of time etc. This approach is seen as overcoming a high density of road tolls negatively impacting some drivers while others may face less of a challenge in meeting their toll obligations. They, however, would not like to see an increase in government spending in the area as they believe this would reduce spending in other areas.
Miljøpartiet de Grønne (Green Party): The Green Party are in favour of road tolls, specifically wherein the finance raised is used to fund better public transport options, reduce congestion and enable better quality air within cities. They view tolls as an effective way to fund green transport initiatives providing the example of their work on Oslo city council in using toll funds on bicycle and walking initiatives. They are however against toll funding to be used on more road projects as they see this as bad environmental policy.
Rødt (Red Party): From the outset, it’s also clear that the Red Party are against toll roads for their negative redistributive effects. They view tolls as a flat fee, which doesn’t impact everybody equally and serves to contribute towards inequality. They instead would prefer to see road projects (amongst other infrastructural projects) to be financed through a progressive tax system as opposed to usage charges. Instead, they would like to see greater public transport spending.
Bompenger is likely to remain a central wedge in the upcoming Norwegian local elections, in large part due to largely local dynamics that determine Norwegian road policy. Alongside this, and as can be seen with regards to the points put forward by The Progress Party (the party in charge of the relevant department) there is unlikely to be the significant change necessary to placate the voters who are outraged about Bompenger. While this serves as a potential opportunity for other parties to capitalise on FRP’s governing fatigue, namely the challenge of being an insurgent populist-like party who are tasked with the hard slog of actually governing, it fails to be seen whether a party can effectively capitalise on this issue in the upcoming election.
As can be seen within data provided by google trends, this is an issue which is evolving in terms of relevance. It’s important to note that searches for Bompenger, do not solely refer to the political importance of the term – but also indicate the broader increasing relevance to people’s daily lives. This can also be seen in the below graphic which outlines which regions search the most for the term Bompenger – again further indicating the strong regional dynamics at play with regards to the issue, and that perhaps those in Oslo may fall to understand the severity and seriousness of this issue and how it affects perhaps less urban life.
What the increasing relevance of Bompenger may mean for Norway’s climate change commitments, and broader reliance on cars (and increasingly electric cars) remains to be seen, indeed many parties are making the right noises about a greater role for public transport and reduced reliance on cars and in turn greater insignificance of tolls. However, whilst the right noise signal intent, converting these noises into sometimes difficult and politically damaging actions is another matter entirely. Norway like many countries is facing the challenge of the rubber of ambitious climate policies meeting the road of its economic costs disadvantaging those who may not be able to access alternative public transport options, how this will pan out remains to be seen but it’s surely going to endure in relevance to Norwegians and Norwegian political parties.