Grassroots battle over government

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As political drama in Norway soared to new heights during the weekend, and put a freeze on Erna Solberg’s government, grassroots movements were vying for attention via social media from right, left and center. While one spent tens of thousands of kroner sending flowers to embattled Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug, a counter-movement had raised NOK 11.5 million by Monday morning for what they considered a far more worthy cause.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg braved the cold of Finnmark during the weekend, here at the close of the annual dogsled race Finnmarksløpet, while a government crisis heated up in Oslo. Solberg reportedly had several conversations, though, with the leader of the Christian Democrats’ party, which holds the swing vote to decide the fate in Parliament. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Listhaug was once again at the center of all the posturing and speculation, forcing even her own conservative Progress Party to decide whether she’s more important than the government power they’ve cherished for more than four years. That’s what it was coming down to, after reports swirled Sunday that if a majority in Parliament express a lack of confidence in Listhaug during a vote scheduled for Tuesday and demand her resignation as justice minister, all the government ministers would resign as well.

The outspoken and provocative Listhaug has thus once again set off a political explosion in Norway, forcing Prime Minister Erna Solberg to deal with all the damage it has caused. Solberg reportedly has been furious with Listhaug herself, over what many consider Listhaug’s unprofessional political conduct and sheer defiance that’s undermined the government set up by Solberg’s Conservatives and the Progress party. Solberg can’t let the opposition parties in Parliament, however, determine who sits in her government. Allowing her conservative coalition government to fall would be “the only correct thing to do,” Kåre Willoch, the elder statesman who once held Solberg’s job, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Sunday evening, if a majority expresses a lack of confidence in Listhaug.

Grassroots mobilizes
Meanwhile, as the small but powerful Christian Democrats with the swing vote on the issue huddled over whether to save both Listhaug and Solberg’s conservative coalition, or let them fall, “ordinary folks” were mobilizing on all sides.

Listhaug’s followers, many of whom include the right-wing immigration skeptics in the Progress Party, had already been busy posting supportive comments on Listhaug’s Facebook page, and allegedly threatening Listhaug’s opponents, after she’d controversially claimed that Norway’s Labour Party was more concerned with the rights of terrorists than national security. When Listhaug finally retracted the claim and offensive photo five days later, and then was forced to apologize under intense pressure in Parliament, they resorted to sending hundreds of flower bouquets to Listhaug.

Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug, facing a lack of confidence vote in Parliament, published this post about how “overwhelmed” she was over “the hundreds of flower bouquets” she received from supporters. PHOTO: Facebook screen grab

Her chief adviser and Facebook mastermind Espen Teigen quickly called in photographers to take pictures of all the flowers. That led to some eerie associations with the photos of all the flowers laid out after the Labour Party was attacked by a right-wing extremist who killed 77 people on July 22, 2011. Newspaper Aftenposten also reported on Saturday that several organizations known for being critical to immigration and integration of foreigners into Norwegian society backed the flower campaign. One of them, according to Aftenposten, has used slogans such as “Close the border, Stop integration, Send them home” and “make Norway Norwegian again.”

Teigen claimed the vast majority of flowers sent to Listhaug came from “ordinary people,” while Listhaug herself (who has refused all interviews the past week) wrote on her Facebook page that she was “overwhelmed” by all the flowers and cards and thanked senders for “all their support.” Another roughly 250 Listhaug supporters demonstrated outside the Parliament Sunday afternoon. Police were on hand to prevent any violence and arrested one man in his 60s for directing a nazi greeting at counter-demonstrators who gathered downtown.

Counter-movement backed by more than 54,000
As one survivor of the July 22 terrorist’s massacre on the island of Utøya reported how she was receving hate messages and death threats in response to her own online complaints and worries about Listhaug’s conduct as justice minister, another grassroots movement began mobilizing Friday evening in protest to the flower campaign. Some followers of a popular program on state broadcaster NRK initially considered launching a flower campaign in favour of Bjørnar Moxness, the left-wing and lone Member of Parliament for the Reds Party who proposed the lack of confidence vote against Listhaug.

The charitable medical organization Leger Uten Grenser was also “overwhelmed” by and “very glad” for all the support it had received from nearly 60,000 Norwegians who had donated more than NOK 12 million by midday Monday. The organization stressed it was a neutral group and “wouldn’t hang itself up” in the political motivations behind the sudden rush of donations. PHOTO: Facebook screengrab

“But I thought we should instead collect money for those who really need it,” stated Camilla Ahamath, who runs online and social media services for the University of Bergen. She urged followers on Facebook to “contribute to a warmer society without hate and dangerous rhetoric,” and urged people to send money to Leger Uten Grenser, Norway’s chapter of Doctors without borders.

Her grassroots movement took off: She’d hoped to collect around NOK 100,000. By Monday morning, nearly 55,000 people had sent donations and messages of support, and raised a stunning NOK 11.5 million for the charitable medical organization.

Political meetings all day
The Christian Democrats’ parliamentary delegation and national board were meeting at noon on Monday to decide whether they would join the Reds, the Center Party, the Greens and Labour to form a majority that would force Listhaug’s resignation and possibly the government’s on Tuesday. Listhaug’s Progress Party was poised for an emergency meeting at 3pm on Monday to respond to the Christian Democrats’ decision. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who just two months ago was enjoying solid support and expanding her government to include the Liberal Party, was also on standby. Few really believed her government would be forced to resign, with various possible solutions to the crisis including a demand that Listhaug make one more “genuine” apology to Parliament on Tuesday and promise to stop regularly hurling the government into a state of emergency.

Political commentator Harald Stanghelle noted on Monday how ironic it is that the methods used by Listhaug, an outspoken advocate of all things “Norwegian,”  are “the most un-Norwegian ever seen in our political history.” Never has an entire government had to apologize for the actions of one of its members, for example, like both Solberg and her Conservative minister Jan Tore Sanner had to do last week before prodding Listhaug into apologizing herself. Never has  a comment from a government minister set off a lack-of-confidence proposal in Parliament, like Listhaug’s did. Never has a government minister so directly defied and undermined a prime minister, like Listhaug has done on several occasions.

“The flower campaign and the donations to a good cause only stress how unique this entire situation is,” Stanghelle wrote in Aftenposten. “Where some people see pressure on Listhaug, others see a justice minister who, with her irreconcilable rhetoric, can stimulate actions with unknown consequences. This has formed a phenomenon that’s completely un-Norwegian, at least given how politics have worked up to now.”

Commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim seemed to agree: “A hopeless Facebook post plus a stubborn minister plus a prime minister lacking control plus a (Christian Democrats) party in crisis equals trouble,” he wrote on Saturday. If Solberg’s government survives the trouble that Listhaug stirred up, questions linger over whether Listhaug and her party will have learned anything from the past two weeks of political uproar that can cost Listhaug her job and those of all her government colleauges.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund