It is more than 8 years since the massacre at Utøya and this year many local authorities ‘forgot’ to mark the 8th anniversary of the Utøya and Olso terror attacks, maybe because they were busy with the local elections. In the meantime, survivors continued to receive death threats and the political assault has still not found its way into the national school curriculum. Gaute Børstad Skjervø who survived Utøya said it felt like Norway had forgotten the political ideas that lay behind the massacre. There is now more hatred, harassment and racism than in 2011 – especially in the social media. This is the opposite of what all politicians promised in the aftermath of the assault. Three youth party leaders have appeared in court due to receiving death threats and the perpetrators have been charged. Skjervø who worked for the media department for the national trade union congress stressed that Norway as a nation needs to engage more with the ideology that lead to the attacks and says that violent and racist rhetoric has become normalised.
Since the local elections in September, there have been some promising signs politically. A stronger set of left and centre parties will perhaps see a stronger stance taken on the issue. The radical right Fremskrittspartiet (Frp) – which has been in national government coalitions since 2013 – saw its lowest support (8.2%) since 2003 at the election whilst the rural Centre party (Sp) and smaller left parties and the Greens all gained support, meaning that the left is in majority. It is the Sp that represents the most remarkable achievement here with 14.4% in total and more than 25% in the county of Nordland. Sp has never before been bigger and the social democratic Arbeiderpartiet (Ap) that used to have a strong hold in the North, ended up with 26.8 the 24.6% in total. In the country as a whole, Sp has in a November poll overtaken the mainstream conservatives and is closing in on Ap.
This is worrying for the mainstream; both on left and the right. But Ap keeps repeating the same mistake as in the 2017 elections – moving to the right. The party seems unable to learn from these mistakes and rather than collaborating with the left they have for example chosen to go into coalition with the conservative Christian party, the greens and the liberals in the city of Bergen. Ap could lose its influence over local governments completely unless SP decides to rule in a coalition with them. Despite of the miserable result for Ap, they still have more mayors than Sp (144 Ap to Sp 132). Sp is still however in an incredibly powerful position; being so strong in the North is a new phenomenon and a result of increased inequality and tensions between the rural population and what many see as the ‘Oslo elites’ and ‘ignorant politicians’ who know little – and care little – about the periphery.
The opportunity structures for Sp are also ideal; people in the North are fuming at centralisation and privatisation as a result of years of neoliberal policies which have led to privatisation and cut backs of services not deemed to be profitable. There are massive protests against the mainstream right and the left who have normally been in power in this region, far away from the political centre. Centralisation and cut backs resulting in police and hospital reforms and closures of the universities and schools as well as a merger of two very big counties and even further reduction of services has made people’s blood boil writes the senior journalist Harald Stanghelle in Aftenposten – giving further room for a form of protest politics functionally-filled by radical right parties.
As a result of this aggressive centralisation and privatisation, the regions arenow turning away from the right-wing conservatives Høyre (H) and neoliberal Ap, and towards Sp that – with its roots as a farmers’ party – has always concerned itself with the living conditions of the rural population. The party has always promised to improve services in the regions and in the North especially. Sp has an excellent supply side and party organisation in a professional team of politicians and leaders. The charismatic, straight talking and always smiling party leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, has for years travelled the country and talked about the ‘Oslo elites’ but has also done a good job of listening to people’s concerns in the most remote communities of the country that stretches more than 2500 km from North to South. Sp’s parliamentary leader, Marit Arnstad, is also one of few politicians who always comes across as honest and sincere; these are the most important criteria for political parties to succeed.
The urban-rural cleavage of political involvement is deepening and journalists and politicians are reaching for their dusty Stein Rokkan books from university days to try and understand what is going on. Rokkan grew up in the North in Lofoten and created a revolution in political science with his theory of political cleavages, looking at things like the centre-periphery and counter culture.
The journalist and political editor of Nordlys, the biggest regional newspaper based in Tromsø, Skjalg Fjellheim argues that mistrust and increase in inequality has poisoned the relationship between rural and urban Norway. The Northern regions have suffered increase in unemployment and opportunities – especially with the closure of the Andøya air station – as well as what he calls the ‘brutal massacre of’ Helgeland University. Many in the North feel that their profitable enterprises are sold on the cheap and that equality is no longer a political concern. A common theme and grievance is that politicians do not listen and do not understand that closing down hospitals and military stations are also of national concern.
The right-wing government coalition have also given up the idea of improving transport and a railway further North than Bodø. Ap has not been able to present an alternative to the government’s centralisation and privatisation and they don’t have a leader that can mobilise around a realistic alternative in opposition. This is where Sp has found its opportunity where they – according to Fjellheim – say ‘everything was better before’, but they are also focusing on the importance of an active, responsible state and a sensible management of natural resources that can provide for- and defend – welfare provision for the nation. This sounds like textbook populism but Fjellheim warns against viewing Sp as ‘cheap populism’, what has happened is a breakdown of trust between the ruling elites and the public.
It is unlikely that Frp will be able to capitalise on any of the grievances, the issues are now owned by the populist, centrist Sp. In a few weeks, immediately after the elections, Frp threatened to leave the government, but that boat has now gone. They are likely to come back with that message every few months depending on the polls, but they are likely to stay on as a junior partner in the government until 2021. If they step down, their leader Siv Jensen will have to leave her position in government as this was her election platform – putting the party in a precarious positions as they haven’t identified a new leader yet.
Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at University of Leeds. See her profile here.
© Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).