Progress Party hit from all sides

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Per Sandberg, deputy leader of the Progress Party, was still being widely denounced on Thursday after he accused the Labour Party of “playing the role of victim” following the July 22 terrorist attacks. Many claimed his apology wasn’t enough to ease the hurt feelings of fellow Members of Parliament (MPs), or undo the damage he inflicted on his already-embattled party, which he was trying to defend. Labour MPs, though, have now accepted a written apology from Progress Party leader Siv Jensen.

The Progress Party topped its own website Thursday with an apology from its deputy leader Per Sandberg. The headline, roughly translated, reads "Sandberg apologizes," and goes on to say he was asking for forgiveness for the remarks he directed at the Labour Party and its youth organization AUF. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet - frp.no

As transcripts emerge of what actually happened on the floor of Norway’s Parliament Wednesday, it’s easier to see what led Sandberg to make remarks that were so offensive to so many. One thing is clear: What was supposed to be an open debate on the never-ending aftermath of the terrorist attacks degenerated into a nasty political conflict.

The incident hit the front page of most Norwegian newspapers, and topped websites and broadcast channels. Once again, Progress Party leader Siv Jensen was left to try cleaning up another mess within her ranks. “Poor Siv,” intoned one local columnist’s headline.

‘Question hour’ ran awry
It all started when opposition MPs were given their regular opportunity to question and challenge government ministers in Stortinget (the Parliament). This week, the so-called “question hour” reserved for Wednesdays centered on the debate over how the government has reacted to the terrorist attacks, and the Progress Party was angry. Top officials from Labour, which leads Norway’s left-center government coalition, had been suggesting that their counterparts in the country’s most conservative party used rhetoric that led to “hateful debate” that’s not constructive in Norway’s emerging multi-cultural society.

That didn’t sit well with Jensen or Sandberg. She challenged Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who was representing Labour, claiming that her party has virtually been accused of sharing the lone Norwegian terrorist’s extreme anti-immigration views. As political columnist Kjetil B Alstadheim wrote in Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday, Støre had no sympathy for Jensen, suggesting she also had to tolerate “open debate” and that “it’s almost as if the Progress Party is the victim in the debate we’ve had after July 22. Very strange.”

Sandberg followed Jensen on the podium and that’s when things went wrong. “Let me first ensure that no one is trying to play victim here,” Sandberg said, clearly provoked by Støre’s statement. “If there is anyone who has played victim after July 22, it’s the Labour Party, to the highest degree. And they should, because they were one of the biggest victims.”

Damage done
The last part of Sandberg’s statement was an apparent attempt to temper what he’d just said, but the damage was done. Some Labour MPs were so upset that they left the room in tears. MPs from other parties, both in government and opposition, were shocked as well. Labour’s deputy leader Helga Pedersen had to fight back tears herself, telling newspaper Aftenposten later that “it just feels so unfair, and like a blow beneath the belt. I reacted with disbelief, then with fury … there were many who started to cry and went back to their offices.”

Sandberg quickly apologized for his remarks, but first to TV2 and other reporters, not directly to Pedersen. By Wednesday evening, Siv Jensen was appearing live on national TV, criticizing her deputy leader’s remarks herself and apologizing on behalf of Sandberg.

Sandberg himself published a full apology that topped the Progress Party’s website. “I should of course never have formulated my words the way I did,” Sandberg wrote. “The formulation I used can be interpreted that I meant the Labour Party and AUF are playing a sort of victim’s role in the wake of July 22. I of course don’t mean that.”

He stressed that there “naturally is no doubt” that both Labour and AUF are victims after the bombing of government headquarters and the massacre at AUF’s summer camp on the island of Utøya.

He added that he still believes both Labour and AUF have been, to a much too large degree, linking his party to the attacks. “I meant to caution Labour against using July 22 in its opinions and own rhetoric against the Progress Party,” Sandberg wrote. “I have full understanding that there has been (negative) reaction. My formulation was completely wrong.”

There was no mention of the incident on Labour’s own website Thursday but Støre told TV2 he had registered Sandberg’s apology. Jensen resorted to not only making her verbal apologies but also to sending a letter to Labour’s parliamentary group, begging their pardon. Labour veteran Martin Kolberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday that her written apology was accepted.

Other politicans, aware that debate over various aspects of July 22 will continue, resorted to repeating Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s earlier calls for more tolerance, solidarity and, now, sensitivity among them all.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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