The radical right tide might be turning in Norway. Last week thousands turned out on the streets in sub-zero temperatures in 33 Norwegian towns from Mandal in the South to Tromsø in the North to demonstrate against half-a-century of attacks on the right to free abortion in Norway. The new radical right government – formed on 22 January 2019 and consisting of 7 Progress Party ministers – have caved in to evangelical Christians within the new majority coalition that stands accused of attacking women’s rights in a country where state feminism has been a reality since the 1980s.
The new government was met by a group of women demonstrators dressed like the women in ‘The handmaid’s tale’ when they stepped out from the parliament to meet the press. The cross country street protest have a broad support by more than 40 organisations, trade unions and political parties. Youth groups have been particularly vocal and active accusing old politicians of attacking their rights and future.
The government now consists of 22 ministers; eleven men and eleven women and is the biggest and most expensive government in terms of salaries and expenses in Norwegian history. It prides itself on gender equality, but has already been attacked because of lack of diversity; the ministers are all white and from only three counties. It has caused upset that not a single minister is from an ethnic minority, in a country where 17% of the population are immigrants or have immigrant background provocation, but in Norway most of the political establishment do not seem to regard ethnic diversity as important as long as there is gender equality.
Gender balance, however, in the new government is not synonymous with woman-friendly policies; to get the Christian People’s party KrF (Kristelig Folkeparti) to accept the invite to join the government the Prime Minister Erna Solberg has agreed to revisit abortion legislation that has been taken for granted in Norway since 1976. This means no abortion after 12 weeks, no matter what, this was a key condition put on the table by KrF to even accept discussing a potential government coalition. KrF is a tiny Christian party (4.2% support in the 2017 elections) in a coalition where the political right is now the dominating force – with all minister’s hailing from right-wing parties.
The request to join the minority government formed in January led to a crisis in the KrF. Its leader stepped down in October 2018 as a result of the majority of its membership wanting to enter the radical right government coalition. The KrF had a pivotal position in the parliament and had a disproportionate amount of power in Norwegian politics because of it. The KrF leader Knut Arild Hareide had been a staunch critic of the government’s hard line on immigration and asylum.
Most Norwegian voters seem to have had enough of the whims of a radical right minority government and its lack of action on climate change, inequality, labour law erosion, privatisation of the welfare state, its racist immigration platform and the moralising attitude on biotechnology and abortion. The abortion issue in particular has stirred up a lot of anger, passion and support to the left in opposition. Many voters have gone to the Centre Party, SP (Senterpartiet), the Socialist Left, SV and even the labour party; Arbeiderpartiet (AP). 700 members have left the KrF and 1,264 have joined the small socialist left party, Sosialistisk Vensteparti (SV) in one week. The media reports a ‘membership’ explosion on the left.
Never before has the left opposition seen so many new members in such a short time and a cross-party movement against the current government is gaining momentum. As demonstrations have gathered pace, PM Solberg is being accused of lacking integrity by sacrificing fundamental women’s rights and losing dignity in coalition negotiations by selling her soul in the process. Not many seem to believe that she really agrees with KrF on this issue. The attack on women and abortion rights seems to have been the lasts straw for many, even members of Høyre (the Norwegian Conservatives) are leaving the party. Democracy and fundamental rights are seen to be under threat in the country Helga Hernes’s state feminism became reality already in the 1980s. With state feminism, positive discrimination and gender quotas women in Norway were granted unprecedented access to power and political influence and have in many periods dominated the political discourse. State feminism is now owned by the right as well as the left in Scandinavia and people are shocked by the attack from the radical right on women’s control of their reproductive organs.
Among the thousands who were on the streets and demonstrating against the government and the proposed changes last week were also many who had voted for a right leaning party. Even prominent radical right politicians from the governing radical right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) have come out against it. The most recent assault on women’s right is not originating from the political radical right in Norway but from the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians from the Norwegian ‘Bible Belt’, the south and west provinces of the country. But now the radical right that have tried so hard to establish themselves as supporters of women and women’s rights will, as part of government coalitions, legitimise a new kind of legislation and policies most Norwegians associate with another era or another continent. The similarities to evangelical movements in the USA and Brazil are striking.
The new government now stand accused by a swell of an uprising from the political left as well as the right for attacking the foundation of hard-won equality, equality legislation and state feminism that comes with gender equality, gender quotas, of the highest female labour market participation in the world supported by generous parental leave, affordable childcare in a universal welfare state. The universal welfare state has been long eroding with cut backs to the public sector, privatisation, welfare profiteering and change in legislation concerning special characteristics like gender and race, but the onslaught on abortion legislation seem to have woken up the Norwegian opposition, at least for now.
Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a lecturer at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, specializing on the extreme right in Europe. See her profile here:
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