Norwegian leaders right up to the prime minister’s office were shocked to hear this week about how opponents of road tolls (bompenger) in the Stavanger area have harassed a local mayor and her family. Now the government mnister in charge of local governments is calling in the leaders of all political parties to address what she sees as a threat to democracy.
“We’ll risk being in a situation where no one will want to get involved in local politics,” Monica Mæland, whose ministerial post makes her responsible for ensuring democracy in Norway, told state broadcaster NRK. “We are utterly dependent on thousands of people taking part in their communities, counties and nationally to set policy. That’s what democracy is all about. We have to protect those who do this important work.”
Mæland and Prime Minister Erna Solberg were along those shocked on Monday evening, when Ane Mari Braut Nese, mayor of Klepp in Rogaland on Norway’s West Coast, publicly revealed at a town council meeting how she and her family have been subjected to violence, vandalism and harassment. It was all because Nese had voted with a majority to impose new road tolls in the area to help finance tranportation improvements.
“It’s not okay for my son to be thrown against a wall and grabbed by the throat, to get his mother to change her vote on the road toll issue,” Nese said from the podium while choking back tears. “It’s not okay to have our home and family car vandalized. It’s not okay to have our home sprayed with cow manure.”
Nese is by no means the first politician to be harassed, also over road tolls. In 2017 the Oslo city government official who has promoted higher road tolls and restrictions on driving downtown had to be driven around herself because of threats to her personal safety. Solberg, who’s also experienced harassment, called that experienced by Nese “totally unacceptable” and of a character that no one should have to tolerate.
“I think it’s absolutly terrible that also her children had to experience this,” Solberg told NRK. “And this is nothing new. We had a round with this sort of harassment just a half year ago, too.”
Finance Minister Siv Jensen and Culture Minister Trine Skei Grande also condemned the harassment against Nese, which is now under investigation by the police. A public prosecutor is determining whether to bring criminal charges against one suspect. Asked whether she’s been afraid, Nese responded, “yes, I have wondered how far folks will go with this.”
Mæland vowed to launch a crackdown on such bad public behaviour. “I view these incidents as extreme,” Mæland told NRK. “I have heard many stories about bullying and harassment, but what’s happened to the mayor of Klepp is definitely the most serious. This is utterly unacceptable.”
The state organization that represents local governments, KS, surveyed local politicians and found that 40 percent of them have been subjected to hateful acts and concrete threats. Many young elected officials have considered leaving local politics because of the harassment they experience.
“I want to meet with KS, the parties’ youth organizations and parties from all over the country to share experiences and find ways of how we should fight this,” Mæland said. She encouraged “good and thorough debate” that must respect opponents’ positions: “We simply can’t accept bullying and harassment.”
Road toll systems have become a target of huge protests in Norway in recent months, sparked creation of new protest parties against road tolls and led to noisy demonstrations around Stavanger, Bergen, Oslo and many other communities. Andreas Lahammer, who initiated a road toll demonstration in Klepp on Monday, claimed he didn’t like hearing how some of his like-minded supporters have behaved.
“I am personally opposed to harassment of the mayor,” he told NRK. “I think it’s very childish of those who have harassed the mayor.”
Nese said she appreciated the outpouring of support for her after she disclosed what she’s been through: “It’s good to see that other folks are reacting to this craziness. It raises hope that the debate climate will be clearned up a bit.”