OSLO (AFP) - Norwegians started voting on Monday in elections likely to lead to a governing coalition of Conservatives and anti-immigrant populists, two years after Muslim-hating Anders Behring Breivik's deadly rampage.
Incumbent Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, also the leader of the Labour Party, was widely expected to be voted out of power, even though the self-described "optimist by nature" still struck an upbeat note on Monday.
"It won't be easy to win the election, but it's possible," he told national news network TV 2 Nyhetskanalen shortly after voting started.
The last pre-election opinion poll, published on Sunday by the daily Aftenposten, showed 54.3 per cent of voters backed the four centre-right parties currently in the opposition. That would give them a comfortable majority of 95 of 169 seats in Parliament.
Mr Stoltenberg's centre-left coalition, composed of his Labour Party, the Left Socialists and Centrists, garnered just 39 per cent of voter sympathies in Aftenposten's poll. That would translate to 68 seats in Parliament.
Aftenposten said in an editorial on Monday that the prime minister, who has governed for two consecutive terms since 2005, was unlikely to be handed a third term.
"The three parties (in the governing coalition) haven't come up with a strong and innovative reform programme that would justify 12 years of uninterrupted government," it said.
Mr Stoltenberg's likely successor, Conservative leader Erna Solberg, told the news agency NTB on Sunday that the situation looked "very good" and that one of the main questions on her mind was how many votes her party would get.
"We need a strong mandate from the voters to be able to form a forceful government," she said.
Norway has 3.64 million eligible voters, and of these 842,000 had already exercised their right prior to Monday's election in advance voting.
Some districts also opened their polling stations on Sunday.
The centre-left coalition's eight years in power are an unusually long tenure in Norway.
It is seen as suffering from power fatigue, even though the oil-rich nation enjoys exceptionally robust conditions for a European economy, with almost no unemployment and very high living standards.
"Even if many things are going well, there are always many things that could go even better," Mr Stoltenberg told the news network.
Mr Stoltenberg's coalition has also been criticised for the authorities' failures to prevent Breivik's July 22, 2011 attacks. He killed 77 people 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.
In an 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, which counted Breivik among its members until 2006, has condemned the attacks and has also toned down its rhetoric on immigrants, and no one in Norway associates the party with the carnage wrought by the right-wing extremist - an issue that has been conspicuous by its absence from the campaign.
Instead, the issues that dominated the run-up to the election were healthcare, education, taxes and how to best use Norway's vast oil wealth.
"I do believe that Breivik is irrelevant" to the campaign, said Mr Peter Linge Hessen, a young Labour party campaigner who survived the Utoeya massacre.
The Progress Party, led by Siv Jensen, has been credited with around 15 per cent support in the polls, down by about a third from the last election in 2009.
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 due to disagreements with the populist right, 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 US$750 billion (S$959 billion), which the populists want to dip into to finance their election promises.