Ambitious AUF boss keen to move on

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Eskil Pedersen has had more publicity, both good and bad, and been closer to government powers-that-be than any other young, aspiring Norwegian politician his age. Now, with the first year of tragedy behind him following the attacks on the Labour Party youth group he heads, AUF, Pedersen wants to concentrate on politics once again, and perhaps his own ambitions.

AUF leader and ambitious young politician Eskil Pedersen, during a memorial service on Sunday for victims of last year's terrorist attacks on the Labour Party's youth organization that Pedersen leads. Pedersen himself fled the attacks on the camp's lone ferry, along with eight others. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

Few doubt that Pedersen is positioning himself to follow in the footsteps of Norway’s current prime minister, also from the Labour Party, Jens Stoltenberg. At times, Pedersen’s mannerisms and way of speaking bear an uncanny resemblance to Stoltenberg. Already armed with his own political adviser in his mid-20s, it makes one wonder whether Pedersen has had the same media adviser as Stoltenberg.

Such questions have seemed trivial, though, in a year when Pedersen, Stoltenberg and the rest of the Norwegian Labour Party’s hierarchy have had to deal with terrorist attacks on both Stoltenberg’s government and Pedersen’s youth organization a year ago. The attacks killed 77 persons, 69 of them on the island of Utøya where AUF holds its annual summer camp. Pedersen was on the island himself, but fled at the alleged insistence of his adviser on the island’s only ferry with just nine persons on board, leaving behind hundreds of others.

Pedersen has since fended off criticism that his escape from Utøya was akin to that of a captain leaving a sinking ship. Pedersen has responded by questioning what others would have done in a similar situation, not least since the heavily armed gunman on Utøya viewed Pedersen as a major target in his attempts to kill off the next generation of Labour Party leaders. Pedersen chose to save his own life.

‘Chaotic situation’
“It was a very chaotic situation and then your body does a lot on imulse,” Pedersen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) recently. “You’re not in control, no matter how much you try.” He confronts his own sense of guilt over leaving AUF’s island under siege by stressing that he used his time on the ferry to send important text messages and call top Labour politicians, to report what was going on and summon help for the hundreds left on the island while the gunman went on his rampage.

“I think many people from Utøya can feel a sense of guilt,” Pedersen told DN. “People have run from friends who begged them to stay. Others had to swim away from their friends.” But he claims that “everyone who has studied how humans react to crisis say it’s normal to feel such guilt.”

The only really guilty party, many note, is the gunman himself, who will receive his sentence late next month. A state commission probing the emergency response to the attacks is expected to address the use of the island’s lone ferry when it releases its report, also next month. Pedersen, meanwhile, was unhappy when newspaper Aftenposten published a detailed account of his escape from Utøya, based on police documents, and it was clear Pedersen would have gladly avoided the questions and criticism he later received for his decision to flee. He denies reports he and other AUF officials tried to stop the paper from printing their story, but he told a group of foreign journalists last spring that Aftenposten’s report was based on information that was “illegally obtained.”

Avoided testifying
Pedersen since has avoided needing to testify in court, either on the lack of security at Utøya or his own response to the attack and escape. Some AUF members have claimed Pedersen or his deputies have tried to control information about the situation on Utøya, also about AUF’s position on political issues. Pedersen also appealed to the Norwegian media to “be careful” about their coverage of the terrorist’s trial, and some suggested Pedersen and AUF even tried to “censor” the media. He called the trial itself “a test” for the media, portraying attitudes that seemingly defied Labour’s own calls for “more openness, more democracy” after the attacks and portrayed little understanding for the critical role of the press.

Eskil Pedersen at a meeting with foreign journalists last spring. PHOTO: Views and News

Now, a year and countless funerals and press conferences later, Pedersen claims he’s determined to move forward with politics instead of personal tragedy, now that last spring’s difficult court case against gunman Anders Behring Breivik is also behind him. Like Stoltenberg and most other Labour Party leaders, Pedersen refuses to even utter Breivik’s name, referring to him only as gjerningsmannen(the perpetrator) or as “the terrorist.”

Pedersen said he both dreaded and looked forward to last weekend’s anniversary memorials to the victims of Utøya. He told newspaper Dagsavisen before they began that the “finest” thing he’s learned from the July 22 attacks “is that people in Norway mobilize for each other in a crisis. They bake for each other, hug each other and make an extra call to each other.” The “most important” thing he said he’s learned is that extreme attitudes must be taken seriously, whether it’s Islamic extremism or right-wing extremism, as was the case with the Norwegian gunman. He thinks Norwegians are much more aware of the threats of extremism of any kind now, that more people challenge extremist positions in online debate, for example, and care more about issues involving cultural differences.

Eyeing a seat in Parliament
Pedersen, who also emerged as openly gay during the past apocalyptic year, confirmed in May that he wants a spot in Parliament, representing the Labour Party. He has accepted a nomination from the party’s chapter in Telemark, where Pedersen was born. “It would be great to take on such a job for the party,” he told Dagsavisen.

He’s not quitting as AUF leader, though, and is standing for re-election after an extraordinary term since last summer’s attacks. He’s traveled widely and met a variety of international leaders both current and former, from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton. When Prince Charles of Great Britain wanted to meet survivors from Utøya during a visit to Oslo last spring, Pedersen, as AUF leader, got to be part of the official welcoming committee. He’s also assured a spot at all major national events, rubbing elbows with royalty and other heads of state, and has made a long list of public appearances all over the country.

“In our opinion, Eskil Pedersen is the country’s greatest political talent,” said the leader of a Labour group in Skien, in Telemark. While both Pedersen’s adviser Flaarønning, age 23, and AUF’s secretary general Tonje Brenna have left their AUF posts after a tough year, Pedersen claims he’s not exhausted and anxious to carry on. “I look forward to the feeling of an election, to be worried about poor public opinion poll results,” he told Dagsavisen, referring to next year’s national elections. “The autumn will be spent on politics. I will write newspaper commentaries, take part in debates and say what I believe!

“It’s not a goal to get over July 22, but the next two years (as AUF’s incumbent leader) will be less about  it than before,” he added. “My biggest job is to take AUF from July 22, and into the future.” And, perhaps, to continue carving out a political future for himself, in a powerful government position.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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