The present-day Conservative Party (Høyre) was established in 1885. The Liberal Party (Venstre), founded in 1885 as a counterbalance to the civil servant class, became the rallying organization of the Agrarian Friends' Association. The party's political program stresses social reform. Industrial workers founded the Labor Party (Arbeiderparti) in 1887 and, with the assistance of the Liberals, obtained universal male suffrage in 1898 and votes for women in 1913. The Social Democrats broke away from the Labor Party in 1921–22, and the Communist Party (Kommunistparti), made up of former Laborites, was established in 1923. The moderate Socialists reunited and revived the Labor Party organization in 1927. The Agrarian (Farmers) Party was formed in 1920; it changed its name to the Center Party (Senterparti) in 1958. The Christian People's Party (Kristelig Folkeparti), founded in 1933, and also known as the Christian Democratic Party, supports the principles of Christianity in public life.
For several decades, the Liberals were either in office or held the balance of power, but in 1935, as a result of the economic depression, an alliance between the Agrarian and Labor parties led to the formation of a Labor government. During World War II, the main parties formed a national cabinet-in-exile. Political differences between right and left sharpened in the postwar period. Attempts to form a national coalition among the four non-Socialist parties proved unsuccessful until the 1965 elections, when they gained a combined majority of 80 seats in the Storting. Per Borten, who was appointed in October 1965 to form a non-Socialist coalition government, retained office in the 1969 elections, although with a majority of only two seats.
In the 1973 general elections, the Labor Party received only 35.3% of the national vote; its representation in the Storting shrank to 62 seats, but with its Socialist allies, it was able to form a minority government. The Christian People's Party, meanwhile, registered gains, as did the Socialist Electoral League, a new coalition, which was able to take a number of votes away from the Labor Party. In 1975, the Socialist Electoral League was transformed into a single grouping known as the Socialist Left Party, comprising the former Socialist People's Party, the Norwegian Communist Party, and the Democratic Socialist Party (formed in 1972); the transformation, which resulted in a platform that voiced criticism neither of the former USSR nor of Leninist ideology, marked the first occasion when a Western Communist Party voted to dissolve its organization and merge into a new grouping with other parties.
In the 1977 elections, Labor expanded its representation to 76 seats, but its Socialist Left ally won only two seats, and their coalition commanded a single-seat majority in the Storting. Odvar Nordli, who became prime minister in January 1976, succeeding the retiring Trygve Bratteli, formed a new cabinet and remained in office until February 1981, when he quit because of ill health. His successor was Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's first woman prime minister. Her term in office lasted only until September, when the non-Socialist parties obtained a combined total of more than 56% of the vote and a Conservative, Kåre Willoch, became prime minister of a minority government. In April 1983, the government was transformed into a majority coalition.
Following the loss of a vote of confidence, the coalition was replaced in May 1986 by a Labor minority government led by Brundtland, who formed a cabinet of eight female ministers out of 18. With an average age of 47, her cabinet was the youngest ever in Norway.
Labor increased its support in the 1993 election, winning 67 seats. The Center Party became the second largest party while the Conservatives and other right-wing parties suffered a decline.
The September 1997 election brought to power a coalition of Christian People's party, Liberals, and Center party and was headed by the Lutheran minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik. The coalition claimed only 42 seats in parliament and Bondevik was forced to seek compromises with opposition parties to pass legislation. In March 1999 his government lost a vote of confidence after Bondevik refused to weaken antipollution laws to allow the construction of gas-fired power plants. Norway generates most of power from nonpolluting hydro power and Bondevik was not ready to compromise Norway's environment for the sake of national gas energy.
Because the next legislative elections could only be held in September 2001, Jens Stollenberg, the recently elected leader of the Labor party, became prime minister at the tender age of 41, becoming Norway's youngest leader. Stollenberg pledged to seek strong ties to Europe and favored European Union membership. He also announced the privatization of Statoil, the state's oil company and Telenor, the state-owned telecommunication group. Especially, the partial sell-off of Statoil is of huge symbolic significance because of its role as the guardian of the nation's oil and gas wealth.
In the September 2001 parliamentary elections, although the Labor Party came in first, it suffered its worst defeat since 1924, taking only 24.3% of the vote, compared with 35% in 1997. Voters were disgruntled with high tax rates—in some cases 50%—and inadequate public services, including hospitals, schools, and public transportation. The far-right Progress Party gained seats. Bondevik was returned to power as prime minister, putting together a coalition of the Christian People's Party, the Liberals, and the Conservatives, with support from the Progress Party. The distribution of the parties' electoral strength in the Storting following the 2001 elections was as follows: Labor Party, 24.3% (43 seats); Conservative Party, 21.2% (38 seats); Progress Party, 14.7% (26 seats); Christian People's Party, 12.5% (22 seats); Socialist Left Party, 12.4% (23 seats); Center Party, 5.6% (10 seats); the fisherman's Coastal Party, 3.9% (2 seats); and the extreme-left Red Electoral Alliance, 1.7% (1 seat).