Norway’s so-called “climate election” ended with the country’s clearly “green parties” performing worse than expected. That surprised and disappointed many, not least the Greens Party (MDG): Its leaders are now catching criticism for being “too militant” and “scaring off” voters.
With the climate debate and the future of Norway’s oil industry emerging as one of the biggest issues in the national election on Monday, many thought the small but attention-getting Greens Party (Miljøpartiet de Grønne, MDG) would finally make its breakthrough in national politics. Instead it only won 3.8 percent of the vote, less than the 4 percent needed for full representation in Parliament and leaving it with only three seats. The party also lost voters in Norwegian cities including Oslo, where it’s earlier had enough support to win lots of influence in city government.
Some of Norway’s other climate-friendly parties including the Socialist Left (SV) also won less votes than expected, but the Greens’ results were most startling. They were better than in any previous parliamentary election (3.2 percent of the vote in the last election and 2.8 percent in 2013) but three mandates in Parliament won’t give them nearly the political clout they’d sought.
Several political commentators have already claimed that the Greens’ leaders have been far too confrontational, bordering on arrogant, with a tendency to dismiss or appear unsympathetic towards oil and offshore workers worried about their jobs or urban residents worried they’ll no longer be able to have a car in the city. The Greens have also been unwilling to compromise, even posing an ultimatum that they wouldn’t support any government that doesn’t agree to halt all further oil and gas exploration.
‘Confrontational approach’ didn’t work
All this may have ruined their biggest chance so far for an election triumph. As newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized on Wednesday, “we must cut emissions and that must happen now. At the same this must happen in a manner that makes sure ordinary people all over the country won’t become unnecessarily burdened economically, but rather be part of the team effort.”
Dagsavisen’s commentator Hege Ulstein wrote that the Greens “chose a narrow and confrontational approach” during the election campaign when there “was no need to be so uncompromising” with other parties on the ultimately victorious left-center side of Norwegian politics. In doing so, Ulstein wrote, the Greens effectively “turned down the prospect of a seat around the king’s table at the weekly Council of State,” and a greater opportunity to influence climate policy.
Some longtime members of the party itself agree. “We’re going to have to have a discussion about how voters view us, who we choose to represent us and how they’re regarded,” Jan Bojer Vindheim, a veteran of the Greens since its infancy in the late 1980s, told newspaper Klassekampen on Wednesday. Like many others, he worries that the Greens’ most highly visible leaders contributed towards polarizing the climate debate in Norway, and lacked both respect and tolerance for those with different opinions.
Bojer Vindheim called the Greens’ party leader Une Bastholm and its most high-profile politician in Oslo, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, “very competent in many ways, but they have a way of awakening resistance in many people. I think we could have gained by presenting a milder tone.”
Both Berg and Bastholm managed to respectively win and retain seats in Parliament, while the Greens’ former leader, Rasmus Hansson, will fill the party’s third seat. All are from the Oslo area, though, giving the party an urban image that may cause problems during the next four years. Bojer Vindheim, now 75 and still representing the Greens in the county assembly for Trøndelag, doesn’t expect an immediate leadership debate within the party, “but we must discuss and form a strategy about how we appear to voters.” He also thinks it was wrong of party leaders to issue the ultimatum about oil exploration, calling it “counterproductive.”
Risk becoming irrelevant
Ørjan Jensen, the Greens’ only mayor of a Norwegian municipality (Vardø in Northern Norway), was also critical. “I think that we’ve been too militant, both in this election campaign and in the last one,” Jensen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday. He’s unhappy the party issued “such hard demands … that make folks view us as a bit too extreme.”
Jensen also thinks the Greens suffered from being viewed as “a one-issue party,” concerned mostly about the climate and cutting emissions without having a broad platform on other issues. “When you’re viewed as being extreme, you also become irrelevant,” Jensen told NRK.
Jo Saglie, a researcher and political scientist at Norway’s Institute for Social Research, told Dagsavisen on Wednesday that there “are certainly voters who are definitely concerned about the climate, but think the Greens go too far. There can also be other voters who think other parties have better overall political agendas and can agree more easily with other parties.” He stressed that even though climate and the environment have been high on the agenda during the election campaign, “it’s not automatic that the Greens gain from that.”
Lars Nehru Sand, a political commentator for NRK, notes that the Greens “over time have had radical rhetoric that thrills their party faithful but can be an obstacle in reaching out to the masses.” He also thinks the party’s ultimatum against oil exploration should be re-evaluated, claiming it has closed more doors than it opened.
Greens leaders weren’t immediately responding to all the discussion about why they didn’t win more seats in Parliament at a time when climate issues were so high on the political agenda. Berg went unusually quiet, there was no updated response to election results on the Greens’ website two days after the election and Bastholm didn’t respond directly to requests for comment on party veteran Bojer Vindheim’s concerns.
Party secretary Torkil Vederhus was left to reply, telling Klassekampen that “we will, of course, evaluate our election campaign. We moved forward, but not enough forward.” He said Bojer Vindheim’s concerns “will be part of that. We will now have a process where local chapters can offer their opinions before we lay plans for parliamentary elections to come.”
Rasmus Hansson, who’ll be returning to Parliament for the Greens after a four-year absence, said he didn’t want to make a public evaluation of the campaign now. “We’ll do that internally, but when an evaluation is made, all viewpoints will be legitimate.”
Other parties ‘cashed in’
Hansson admitted he was disappointed with the Greens’ election results. “I had absolutely expected that we’d come over the limit for full representation,” he told Klassekampen. “That should have happened, given the public opinion poll results we’d had.”
He also thinks other parties latched on to the Greens’ proposed climate measures, telling Dagsavisen that they “cashed in” on them in their own party programs. He has pointed to how Labour, which has traditionally supported the oil industry, moved the need for emissions cuts much higher up on its agenda, and how the Conservatives suddenly introduced new oil tax policy that will reduce incentives for more oil exploration. That may have brought back voters who want to rein in the oil industry and who had migrated towards the Greens.
He acknowledged that the Greens had been defined as uncooperative by other parties. Others would argue the Greens portrayed themselves as unwilling to cooperate with other parties, and in Norwegian politics, that’s the only way to get things done.
Climate measures likely to dominate
Several Norwegian commentators insist the election still qualified as a “climate election,” with voters now expecting firm progress on emissions cuts after years of postponements. Many think the rest of the world expects Norway to cut its own emissions instead of simply paying other countries to do so, with a Danish newspaper even devoting its front page on Wednesday to a message urging Norway to carry out a “rapid green shift.”
Norway also must meet its climate goals for emissions cuts in Norway by 2030 and 2050, in order to comply with both the UN and the EU. That will also put pressure on the oil industry itself, as both it and offshore supply businesses pursue prospects in more climate-friendly ventures like offshore wind energy without simply being accused of “greenwashing.”
When the other parties realized, later than the Greens had, that there is public support for measures to halt climate change, and at least limit ongoing exploration, most went on the offensive instead of staying on the defensive. The Conservatives rolled out its oil tax policy changes while its two partners in the outgoing government, the Christian Democrats and Liberals, have already had strong climate agendas and want to halt exploration.
On the winning left-center side, meanwhile, Labour opted to stress how climate issues are complicated and need “well-grounded solutions” that it promises to propose. SV, which is expected to exert lots of climate pressure as a member of a potential Labour-Center-SV government, is expected to push for specific measures that collectively can bring oil emissions down: A halt to more exploration in offshore Arctic areas, a postponement of the next oil field licensing round or closure of mature oil fields. Even the pro-oil Center Party will have to go along with measures to cut emissions, with some of its farming constituency already coming up with proposals of their own.
Only the conservative Progress Party continues to actively support the oil industry and ridicule what it call “climate hysteria.” It only won 11.7 percent of the vote on Monday, down sharply from the 15-16 percent it claimed in the last two elections.