Greens plant their new seeds of power

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NEWS ANALYSIS: A week after scoring their most stunning election victories ever, Norway’s Greens Party is busy uprooting other parties’ entrenched positions in local communities all over the country. They’re being both courted and challenged, not least in Oslo, as they plant their first seeds of power and attempt to answer the question: “What now?”

This trio of politicians from the victorious Greens Party will play a major role in determining how Oslo is governed over the next four years. From left: Shoaib Sultan, the Greens' candidate for mayor; Lan Nguyen Berg and Harald August Nissen, who also were elected members of the city council. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

This trio of politicians from the victorious Greens Party will play a major role in determining how Oslo is governed over the next four years. From left: Shoaib Sultan, the Greens’ candidate for mayor; Lan Nguyen Berg and Harald August Nissen, who also were elected members of the city council. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne/Monica Løvland

The Greens (Miljøpartiet De Grønne, MDG) have actually been around since 1988, when a small group of relatively radical environmentalists met in a remote cabin in the mountains of Rondane. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) wrote over the weekend about how their ideas were anchored in the philosophy of the late professor Arne Næss: Humans’ place in the nature was the most important, and humans must not put themselves above nature.

Apart from that, the Greens’ political agenda was a mix of proposals to promote environmental protection, solidarity, some admittedly “hippie thinking” and a solid dose of skepticism towards everything representing money, consumption and established power structures. There was little interest in building up an organization to further their politics, though, and for years they were characterized by great visions and few plans for realizing them.

The Greens weren’t taken very seriously and rolled along for the next two decades with tiny blocs of support from voters, usually less than 1 percent. They got on ballots, though, and finally got themselves a “national spokesperson” (the closest thing they’ll come to having a party leader) who “taught them how to dress,” in order to start winning some respect towards the end of the 2000s. “It’s important not to build extra barriers towards getting your message across,” Hanna E Marcussen, who played a key role in forming some order out of chaos in the party, told DN.

Rasmus Hansson, who previously headed Norway's chapter of the environmental organization WWF, helped lead the Greens Party to major victories all over the country in last week's mid-term local elections. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Rasmus Hansson, who previously headed Norway’s chapter of the environmental organization WWF, helped lead the Greens Party to major victories all over the country in last week’s mid-term local elections. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

The party also scored some breakthroughs, as the very first to go online with its own website, for example. Members were activated, both hitting the streets and being early to use social media to reach voters. In 2012, the party also recruited the outgoing head of WWF, Rasmus Hansson, as its main spokesperson and he went on to win the party’s first seat in Parliament in the last national elections in 2013.

Hansson has been a high-profile, well-spoken, virtual leader for the party ever since, as it literally blossomed and went on to score last week’s breakthrough by winning powerful blocs in local governments nationwide. On a national basis, the Greens won 4.2 percent of the vote, making them bigger than the Socialist Left party (SV) and only a bit smaller than other long-established parties like the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. They won 13.2 percent of the vote in Nesodden, home to many people who commute by ferry to Oslo, 12.4 percent in the Arctic city of Vardø and 11.4 percent in Aurland in the mountains of Sogn og Fjordane. Their strong election results may shake up the national government coalition and, perhaps most importantly, they won 8.1 percent in Oslo and will thus determine which coalition of parties will govern the capital.

“The Greens have gone from being a small, quite radical, ecological-centric sect … to being a credible and pragmatic green alternative for impatient, young, urban academics,” summarized Anders Ravik Jupskås, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, told DN. He’s writing a book about the party and analyzing how it managed to suddenly emerge with so many new members, half of whom have master’s and doctorate degrees. The former rector of the Norwegian Business School BI, Jørgen Randers, the social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen and legendary bands like DeLillos have been among those publicly supporting the Greens as well.

Time to deliver
Now the party has to deliver, though, and its own most high-profile representatives, including Hansson, are the first to admit that they face huge challenges in following through (and financing) everything they’ve promised. “We are a young party and we have a lot to learn,” Hansson told newspaper Aftenposten just before the election. “There are clear limits for what we promise.” Negotiations are underway as new local governments are being formed all over the country, though, and the Greens insist they’re not bound to either the right or left side of Norwegian politics. They’ll work with whichever parties promise them the best cooperation for hammering as many of the Greens policies as possible.

They include measures to ban conventional vehicles from downtown areas, build bicycle paths instead of new roads and invest much more in trains and other forms of public transportation. The Greens want to firmly move Norway away from oil and towards alternative energy, promote far more organic farming and instill entirely new means of working, with shorters hours and higher taxes, to fund welfare services such as free dentistry in addition to Norway’s national health plan.

Greens party members have been dismissed as a bunch of "blockheads" by indignant businessmen who scoff at their promotion of cycling as opposed to driving. The Greens have called for a ban on cars from downtown areas, for example, and far more measures to promote cycling. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

Greens party members have been dismissed as a bunch of “blockheads” by indignant businessmen who scoff at their promotion of cycling as opposed to driving. The Greens have called for a ban on cars from downtown areas, for example, and far more measures to promote cycling. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

Such initiatives have been scoffed at by business leaders and financiers who’ve called Green party members “green communists” and “blockheads” who will lead Norway into “complete chaos.” Investor Jan Petter Sissener was the most disparaging during last week’s election aftermath, telling DN that it was “frightening” that so many people voted for the Greens, and he couldn’t understand how voters could be “duped” by economic policies that he calls “extreme” and beyond any grounding in reality. “Their policies are based on totalitarian thinking and a high degree of dishonesty and fraud,” Sissener claimed, accusing Hansson of failing to recognize that growth (and not least oil) has been the basis for Norway’s higher quality of life and better welfare. Sissener claims the Greens’ dream of shutting down Norway’s oil industry will lead the country into an economic depression.

Hansson predictably dismisses Sissener’s views, saying the investor “understands so little of politics that his analysis should be of limited interest. He doesn’t think any change or alternatives to today’s economic model are needed.”

Election researcher Anders Todal Jenssen says there’s no question the Greens now, with their newfound power to tip the voting on key issues, face the “acid test” of leadership. The Greens have lured away voters from parties like SV, the Liberals and the Labour Party because they weren’t seen as doing enough to halt climate change and protect the environment. Jenssen cautioned that those same voters can become just as disenchanted with the Greens if they don’t see their policies put into action: “The voters may think the Greens won the election, but there’s a long way to go before the Greens’ policies are realized.”

Negotiations underway
The Greens will thus need to show results, and fairly quickly. So far, negotiations in a variety of cities have show the Greens agreeing to side with factions both on the right and the left, confirming their independence. In Tønsberg, for example, the Greens struck an agreement with the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Christian Democrats. In Hamar they have a deal with the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Center Party, while in Bodø, they’ll work with Labour, SV, the Center Party and the Reds.

In Oslo, Labour has been cleared to form a new city government but it must have support from the Greens to get anything done. The Greens’ candidate for mayor, Shoaib Sultan, has been gaining support and his appointment would be one way for Labour to placate the party, even though Labour wants its candidate for mayor to prevail. Labour would also need to go along with lots of the Greens’ controversial traffic policies, like halting plans to expand the E18 highway west of Oslo and closing Oslo’s downtown to cars, but again, the Greens have support from impartial state traffic economists who say their policies are not unrealistic at all.

Labour’s candidate to head city government, Raymond Johansen, was getting down to serious negotiations with the Greens this week. Johansen, a veteran politician for both SV and Labour, will be talking mostly with Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, the 28-year-old daughter of a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Norway in 1968 and holds a master’s degree in political science but is otherwise new to high-level politics. She’s full of energy and known for her constant broad smile, though, and she’s shown signs of being a tough negotiator determined to push the Greens’ policies through.

Hansson was advising all the party’s new members of local governments to stay calm during local government negotiations over the next few weeks and “not let either Labour or the Conservatives stress you.” He, meanwhile, was looking forward to his first free weekend in months and hoped to “disappear into the forest” for a quiet hike, at least for awhile. He could also raise a toast to his 231 party colleagues who were voted into office last week, up from 18 in the election just four years ago.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund