NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg, her main Labour Party challenger Jonas Gahr Støre, other candidates and especially volunteer campaign workers were all subjected to ridicule, harassment and even hatred during this year’s parliamentary election campaign. Solberg and Støre chose to ignore much of it as the campaign wrapped up during the weekend.
“Within just a few days, both Labour and (its youth organization) AUF were subjected to several death threats and violent attacks, right in the midst of the campaign,” wrote political commentator Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen last week.
Ulstein went on to wonder why the recent incidents failed to get much national attention, and weren’t on the agenda at recent political debates: “Why is it so quiet?”
She was referring to a lack of indignant public reaction after AUF members, for example, were subjected to verbal threats and an assault after a party leader debate in Trondheim. Both Støre and Solberg denounced the incident and police arrested the man behind the attack but he was released the next day and media coverage was relatively sparse.
Just a few days earlier, Ulstein noted, Labour’s mayor in the university town of Ås just south of Oslo was on duty at an election campaign stand at the large Vinterbro shopping center. Suddenly he was hit in the head by a man who approached him from behind. At the beginning of the campaign, another man told a 15-year-old AUF member staffing a stand in Vestre Toten that “Breivik should have done a better job,” referring to the right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people in an attack on Labour and AUF 10 years ago. “You should get a shot in the neck. Dig your own grave.”
On Thursday, another member of AUF told Dagsavisen how she’s become accustomed to threats and harassment while out campaigning for Labour. She was thrilled over how Labour topped last week’s mock election in Norwegian high schools but the support hasn’t come easy.
Harassment and threats ‘so usual’
“I don’t think so much any longer about all the harassment and threats I get because it’s become so usual,” said 20-year-old Varin Hiwa, leader of AUF in Oslo. “I’ve been threatened and spat upon at our stands this year. I just have to deal with it, but I do think about all the youth we send out to the stands. We always have to make sure there’s an adult with them, and you have to be at least 16 years old to campaign on Karl Johan (Oslo’s main boulevard, where most all parties have stands during campaign season in August) because it’s so intense there.”
She conceded that some campaign workers have also been physically assaulted in addition to the verbal assaults, and that both Labour and AUF are targeted most often: “We have to be more careful than the other youth organizations.” Hiwa, also a target of racist comments because of her minority background, conceded that “we haven’t talked enough about it, maybe because we don’t want to admit we’re victims.”
Hiwa noted how few if any other young politicians in other parties are subjected to such violence. She wonders herself why Labour is such a target. She thinks all political parties need to jointly fend off harassment, and take responsibility for what they say and do. “I have a responsibility, you have a responsibility (to be civil towards one another) and police have a responsibility,” she said, “and we need political mentors who’ll take on the battle against harassment.”
Labour has a long history of being all but hated by political opponents, perhaps because it held power for so long after World War II and was often viewed as restrictive, even authoritarian. It became much more moderate during the late 1980s and 1990s, with former Labour prime ministers Gro Harlem Brundtland now often referred to as a “mother of the nation” while Jens Stoltenberg was highly popular. It was also under Stoltenberg’s second term as prime minister, however, that Labour and AUF were so brutally attacked. He opted to stress that the attacks were against Norway’s democracy, not just Labour, and was reluctant to risk being accused of exploiting Labour’s role as target and victim. There was no sympathy vote for Labour later, and Støre later actually blamed Labour’s loss in the 2013 national election on the July 22 attacks. Debate over the lack of a political response to the attacks has swirled for the past few years, especially this past summer when Norway marked the attacks’ 10th anniversary.
Labour isn’t alone in being subjected to hatred and harassment. The non-socialist Liberal Party’s former leader Trine Skei Grande was a constant target, the Reds Party’s Eivor Evenrud has received threatening telephone calls at home, and the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Solberg herself has long been criticized personally in unflattering terms.
Few parties apart from Labour, though, have been as hounded as the Greens (MDG), especially its leading candidate for Parliament in Oslo, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg. She’s known for her unwavering battle against the use of private cars in Oslo and has been subjected to particularly nasty harassment for years.
It got so bad last spring that even the Conservatives’ deputy leader Tina Bru, who as oil minister has been harshly criticized by Berg, came to Berg’s defense. “I can’t stand this anymore!” wrote Bru on her own Facebook book page one Saturday night in May, addressing all those who’d writted scores of insults against Berg on social media at the time. “I CAN’T STAND THIS ANYMORE! Now it’s enough, damn it! Shut up!”
Bru called the harassment of Berg “openly racist” and claimed it was an example of hatred against female politicians in general. Berg has also received myriad death threats in combination with bullying and other forms of harassment. “One thing is sour and angry feedback,” Bru told Dagsavisen, “but what Lan has been subjected to exceeds everything anyone should have to tolerate.”
Long considered one of the Conservatives’ young stars with a bright political future ahead of her, Bru revealed that she has been subjected to harassment as well, “most of it centered around claims that I’m just a young woman who doesn’t understand anything.” Her message, she told Dagsavisen, is that “political disagreement is good, but we must separate issues from the people behind them and discuss politics instead of harassing individuals.”
Wealthy men teamed up against the left
The Conservatives’ Solberg has been subjected to insults herself, even from wealthy conservative men keen to keep a conservative government coalition in power. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported recently on a closed social media group founded by Oslo-based investor and businessman Øystein Stray Spetalen in 2016. It’s been intent on keeping Labour and other left-wing parties out of power, with their online discussion of specific politicians often demeaning and hostile. As some even tried to dig up information that would publicly embarrass Støre, others also made unflattering references to Solberg’s weight and style in their online discussions. She was not amused.
“I think (the social media group) looks like an old boys’ club and that’s not a pleasant sight,” Solberg told DN after being made aware of it last week. Spetalen and many of his fellow members of what DN calls Norway’s “financial elite” have donated large sums of money to the Conservative Party and the more conservative Progress Party, but also to the rural-oriented Center Party. Center is keen to form a government coalition with Labour. The group’s support of it has been viewed as an apparent effort to give the pro-oil Center more influence over Labour and any other left-wing coalition partners.
Solberg noted that Spetalen has “demanded my resignation” on earlier occasions, “so this group (many of which were fans of the former US President Donald Trump) clearly has strong opinions on many things.” She told DN that she felt “no need to defend them.” Other wealthy members of the group that numbers well over 100 include billionaires Jan Haudemann-Andersen, Arne Blystad and Ola Mæle, financiers and investors Jan Petter Sissener, Tore Aksel Voldberg, Anders Onarheim and Mads Syversen among many others.
One member and former journalist at conservative business newspaper Finansavisen asked others online whether anyone “knows anything about Espen Barth Eide (a former defense- and foreign minister for Labour who’s in line to join a new government)” that could be used against him. Barth Eide told DN that he “almost felt honoured that they regard me as so dangerous that I need to taken down with a package of dirt.” He compared the network set up by Spetalen to the Alt Right movement in the US.
Political debate has traditionally been relatively polite in Norway. Now many worry that the harsh rhetoric and polarization seen in other countries like the US are infecting the Norwegian debate now, too. Eide himself told DN that “there is Labour hatred out there,” but I haven’t experienced anything that can be tied to this group, so it doesn’t seem like they’ve been very successful.”
Asked whether he thinks the group could have influenced Labour’s defeat at the last parliamentary election in 2017, Eide didn’t think so, although one current member of the group was behind negative stories at the time about Støre. Asked whether some group members’ unusual financial support for the Center Party is an effort to weaken Labour, Eide said told DN that “it’s interesting that they think we are the big threat to their economic interests. Then folks should think about their financial power and whether they should stop them and vote for us.”
As polls opened in some cities on Sunday for an election that was still wide open, according to the latest polls, neither Støre nor Solberg mentioned the hatred and harassment that soiled this year’s election campaign. When asked by newspaper Aftenposten on Sunday to reveal their best and worst recollections from the roughly six-week campaign season, Store referred to a meeting with a man who helps motivate troubled youth as the best, and a lack of sleep as the worst. Solberg referred to “fine weather” through much of the August campaign month, offset by poor results for her party in public opinion polls. She also admitted to being somewhat sidetracked during the campaign by the sudden need to evacuate Norwegians and others from Afghanistan and a sudden spike in Corona infection. Neither mentioned harassment or threats.
Støre, meanwhile, still seemed to lack a majority for his preferred three-party government coalition consisting of the Labour, Center and Socialist Left parties. Solberg’s current government coalition with the Liberals and Christian Democrats was even worse off, but she wasn’t giving up. If all nine parties in the running win full representation in Parliament, negotiations to form a new government are expected to take time. Solberg’s current government will remain in place until a new government is formed.
Election results will start flowing in Monday night after polls close at 9pm. A record number of Norwegians (just over 40 percent) had already cast their ballots in early voting that ended Friday night. The surge in early voting was mostly tied to social distancing still in effect because of the ongoing pandemic.