OSLO — Norwegians voted on Monday on the second and final day of a knife-edge parliamentary election in which Prime Minister Erna Solberg's center-right bloc and a center-left opposition are vying to rule Western Europe's top oil and gas producer.
Solberg's Conservatives want to cut taxes in a bid to boost growth, while opposition Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere wants tax hikes to improve public services such as education and healthcare for Norway's 5 million citizens.
The outcome could impact Norway's oil industry, as either Solberg or Gahr Stoere is likely to depend on one or more small parties that want to impose limits on exploration in Arctic waters off the northern coast.
Solberg, 56, voted in the west coast city of Bergen and expressed cautious hopes of re-election. "The latest opinion polls show that it is within reach. But it's very dependent on who's managed to mobilize voters in the last days," she said.
Stoere, 57, a former foreign and health minister, urged a high turnout to topple Solberg's government. Voting in Oslo on Sunday, he said her tax cuts had eroded Norway's traditions of equality.
In an election that is too close to call, the result could be decided by two small left-wing parties and two on the right – as well as the Greens, who have not said which prime minister they would support.
"This can tip the scale one way or the other," said Professor Toril Aalberg of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
For much of the year, Labour and its allies were favored by pollsters to win a clear victory, but support for the government has risen as the economy gradually recovered from a slump in the price of crude oil, Norway's top export.
Solberg's supporters liken her to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and say her strong-willed management is responsible for the upturn. Norway's economy also has the cushion of a sovereign wealth fund worth almost $1 trillion, the world's biggest, built on income from offshore oil and gas.
Unemployment, which a year ago hit a 20-year high of 5 percent, has since declined to 4.3 percent, while consumer confidence is at a 10-year high.
Exit polls and forecasts based on early votes by about a quarter of the electorate will be made public on Monday at 1900 GMT, and most other ballots will be counted in the following hours. In the case of an exceptionally tight race the wait could last until late Tuesday.
Opinion polls in September on average have given Solberg and three other right-leaning parties 85 seats in parliament, the minimum needed for a majority, while Labour and parties on the center and the left are expected to secure 84 seats.
Two online betting companies gave identical odds for both Solberg and Stoere on Monday. A third gave Solberg a slim edge.
The winner will face tricky coalition negotiations and will have to meet tough demands from the smaller parties to keep their support over the next four years.
Norway's system of proportional representation gives a boost to parties that win more than 4 percent of the national vote.
The Greens, who averaged exactly 4.0 percent in September polls, want to end all oil exploration, citing concerns over climate change and pollution. Other small parties that may be involved in coalition talks want to limit the award of new exploration acreage.
Getting into parliament could "give us big possibilities to force a greener policy that would give Norway a sustainable future," Rasmus Hansson, currently the Greens' only member of parliament, told independent TV2.
Norway's problems are small by the standards of most nations. It routinely tops U.N. lists of the best country in which to live, based on issues including gross domestic product per capita, education and life expectancy.
It even rose to first, from fourth, in a 2017 survey that ranked nations by happiness.