NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian politics turned dramatic this month, after a left-wing Labour Party veteran from a troubled area of Oslo defected to the Center Party, sparking fury among former colleagues. An attorney best known for defending a mass-murderer had also just resigned from Labour to start a new party with disgruntled members of the Christian Democrats, while a new public opinion poll didn’t produce any likely coalition of parties with a majority in Parliament.
Less than a year before next year’s parliamentary election, Norwegian politics appear fragmented indeed. Each of the nine parties currently represented in Parliament will of course strive to win as many votes as possible next September, but then the real maneuvering takes place. Forming a government won’t be easy, and right now, it seems totally up for grabs.
The landscape became even more unclear when news broke that Geir Lippestad, a prominent Oslo attorney who dabbled in politics, was leaving the Labour Party to form a new party called Sentrum. The idea is to create what he claims will be a centrist party that will champion the rights of vulnerable people including asylum seekers. If it gets the 5,000 signatures needed to win party status in Norway, it vows to support international cooperation, reduce economic differences among people, phase out the oil industry within 15 years and support active state ownership of companies and public services.
“Norway needs a new party in the center, one that puts people and sustainability first when policies are formed,” Lippestad wrote in an appeal published in newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. The main goals, he said, would reflect those of the UN: to eradicate poverty, battle inequality, stop climate change and take care of biological diversity. He fell short in a variety of media interviews this week, however, when asked to specify Sentrum’s policies, or even say how many asylum seekers the party wants to bring to Norway.
From the courtroom to the campaign trail
Lippestad sprang to national fame when he defended the young right-wing Norwegian extremist who bombed the offices of Norway’s Labour-led government nine years ago and then set off a massacre at a Labour Party youth camp. Lippestad was a Labour member himself at the time, but explained that even a confessed mass-murderer who blamed Labour for allowing immigrants into Norway needed a public defender. He lost the case, his client remains in jail and Lippestad became more active in Labour politics, winding up as a member of Oslo’s new Labour-led city government until he resigned just before he’d need to take responsibility for a major real estate scandal.
Joining Lippestad in Sentrum are some renegades from the Christian Democrats who didn’t like how that party, after a bitter internal conflict, sided with the non-socialist parties and joined Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives-led government in early 2019. They had preferred a new coalition with Labour.
Now they may make it even more difficult for all of Norway’s small parties to survive in the center. The Christian Democrats and Liberals are now both in the government coalition but have only managed to claim around 3 percent of the vote for months. The Greens and the Reds have around 5 percent of the vote, according to recent polls, but aren’t part of any coalition, while the Socialist Left party (SV) has maintained around 7 percent of the vote but no longer feels welcome in a coalition with Labour and the Center Party and doesn’t share either of their pro-oil policies.
It all stands to fragment and cloud the political landscape even more, at a time when both of Norway’s largest, so-called “steering” parties are struggling as well. Labour, under party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, has sunk to record lows, claiming 21.7 percent of the vote in this week’s “Party Barometer” for October. The Conservatives sank as well, but retained their spot as Norway’s biggest party with 24.1 percent of the vote. The current government coalition it leads already has a minority position in Parliament and now it only holds 30.7 percent of the vote with its two small partners.
Bøhler bails out
Then came more bad news for Labour, when one of its long-time Members of Parliament for Oslo announced that he was moving over to the Center Party and would run for one of its potential seats in Parliament. The maneuver by the 68-year-old Jan Bøhler from Oslo’s Groruddalen district was branded by Aftenposten commentator Andreas Slettholm as “one of Norwegian politics’ most sensational party transfers ever.”
When the shock wore off, the reasons for Bøhler’s defection spell more trouble for Labour. He felt he’d been the victim of a campaign against him, certainly not the first time that’s been alleged within Labour. He also thought his home turf in Groruddalen has a lot of the same problems as outlying districts in Norway that are championed by the Center Party: local police stations have been closed, there aren’t enough job opportunities, the area lost its local hospital and residents who need their cars are frustrated by having to pay high tolls. Residents had been disappointed by Labour, which holds local government control in Oslo but is heavily influenced by the Greens Party and thus promotes politics that don’t always appeal to residents of Groruddalen.
It all means that the Labour Party is now likely to lose support from voters who voted more for Bøhler than Labour itself. “Groruddalen in Oslo has had one of Labour’s biggest and most important voter bases,” Johan Giertsen of the website Poll of polls told Aftenposten. “There’s not another area in Norway that has such a concentration of Labour voters as in Groruddalen, with around 140,000 residents. Bøhler’s transfer (to the Center Party) can have dramatic consequences for Labour in Oslo.”
It can also mark a huge gain for the Center Party, which lacks voter support in Norway’s urban areas because of its protectionist policies, eagerness to shoot wolves and demand for bridges and roads in outlying areas that are the envy of Oslo residents. Bøhler remains popular in Groruddalen and may be able to bring new voters to Center, and even win the party a new seat in Parliament from Oslo that Bøhler would hold. He wants to remain a Member of Parliament, and Labour hadn’t guaranteed he could still represent it.
Furious Labour colleagues
Bøhler has ended up a target of fury from former Labour colleagues, who have called him everything from a traitor to an opportunist. “He has let me down and everyone else who has backed him,” Steinar Saghaug of Labour told Aftenposten. Thorbjørn Berntsen, another Labour veteran and former government minister, went so far as to claim that Bøhler is “soiling his own nest.” Berntsen claimed Bøhler wasn’t as concerned about politics as his own position.
Nonsense, retorts Bøhler and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. They claim a lot of Center Party policy that’s minted for outlying districts can also apply in Bøhler’s urban enclave. “Jan is a politician who is close to his constituency, who is tight at the grass roots level,” Vedum said. “With Jan on our team, we can have a whole new force. With Jan, we can strengthen our urban policy as well.”
One thing is clear: Labour faces another loss, and finds its position threatened in an area that’s traditionally been Labour-faithful. Center’s “theft” of Bøhler may also have consequences if Labour and Center get enough votes to try building a new “left-green” coalition government after the next election. Now there’s some bad blood between them, and more proof than ever that all parties are most keen to wield their own power.