The (anti-)establishment of the Norwegian Green Party

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One year after Breivik’s terrorist attack of July 22, and one year before a possible green electoral breakthrough in Norway, Nikki Schei and Øyvind Strømmen discuss the mobilisation of green voters in their country, the use and impact of populist rhetoric, the impact of new party members, and the relation of the Norwegian Greens with the political establishment.

After years of playing a minor role in the political landscape, the Norwegian Green Party (Miljøpartiet De Grønne) has started believing in an electoral breakthrough in the 2013 parliamentary elections. The GEF Campaign Handbook interviews Nikki Schei, executive board member of the Norwegian Greens, and Øyvind Strømmen, green provincial leader of Hordaland, about the political challenges and strategies of Miljøpartiet. Strømmen is also known as a much quoted specialist on far right extremism in Eu

rope since the attack of July 22. In the article that follows, he and Schei reflect upon the ongoing developments within Miljøpartiet, as well as the impact of the party’s philosophical heritage, the recently joined party members, and the drama of July 22. The interviews with Schei and Strømmen were held separately, but some of the answers are put together in the article.

The professionalization of Miljøpartiet since 2007

GEF: Up till today, Miljøpartiet has not managed to win seats in the national parliament of Norway, for which a 4% election threshold exists. The nearest it got to this threshold, in fact, was in 1989 with 0.4% of the votes. Is it difficult being a green party in a country where so many people have profited, directly or indirectly, from oil and gas exports?

Schei: “Yes, definitely. But I also see that more and more, particularly young people start to understand that we can not continue using these resources forever, and that we have to seriously start investing in renewable energy. I personally like to compare the earth to a balloon. If you do not stop letting air out, the balloon will become weak and empty in the end. Everyone understands such a metaphor.”

GEF: Is Miljøpartiet the only political party in Norway that calls for an end of the oil era?

Schei: “Well, the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti) would like to see this ending as well, but it seems that they have given up on this point in the coalition government with the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet). In this respect, they have not achieved any political victories. Actually, this is one of the reasons why many people are fed up with the Socialist Left Party and have decided to join or vote Miljøpartiet instead.”

GEF: Is the fact that many people are fed up with other parties the main reason why Miljøpartiet is doing relatively well and hoping for an electoral breakthrough in 2013, or is there more behind this development?

Strømmen: “The people from other parties that have decided to join Miljøpartiet since about 2007, which caused a domino effect and reached a peak in 2009, are very important for the professionalization of the party. They bring a lot of political experience with them, which was partly lacking in the small Norwegian Green Party.”

Schei: “Thanks to these developments, Miljøpartiet also becomes more and more visible as ‘one of the parties’ in the Norwegian media. People are paying more attention to us now, as we are starting to be seen as one of the serious political alternatives.”

The impact of new party members on the political profile of Miljøpartiet

GEF: Nikki, you are in fact a former member of the Norwegian Conservative Party (Høyre). To me that seems quite a big political step. Could you explain your switch between the two parties, and give me an idea of the impact of the new members on the identity of Miljøpartiet?

Schei: “I do not believe that the step from the Norwegian Conservative Party to the Greens is so big. Actually, the Norwegian Conservatives are rather similar to the Norwegian Labour Party. I have switched due to a disappointment with the established parties in Norway, among others with regard to environmental policies. Other people who have joined Miljøpartiet, regardless if they come from the left or the right, have similar feelings. They believe in the political alternative that the Greens stand for, in ideas and solutions that are neither left nor right.”

Strømmen: “On economic policies, Miljøpartiet might be rather left-wing. However, the party has recently developed more to the centre, and this way, it has become a possible ally for both left-wing and right-wing parties. In fact, you can already see this happening in some local situations. This development can be partly explained by the impact of the rather pragmatist attitude of the newly joined party members.”

The impact of the philosophical heritage of Arne Næss on the party profile

GEF: Outside Norway, Miljøpartiet is famous because of its ideological basis that was provided by Norway’s internationally well-known philosopher, Arne Næss, who died in 2009. How big is the influence of Næss’ ecosophy (which values Self-realisation with a capitalised “Self” that includes the ecosphere, as a distinction from the narrow human selves) still on the course of your party today, three years after his death, and with many new members joining the party?

Strømmen: “As mentioned, many new members of Miljøpartiet have a rather pragmatic approach to politics, whereas some of the older members have a rather philosophical approach in the tradition of Næss.”

Schei: “The philosophy of Næss seems to be more important to the older than to the newer members of the party. Still, I would say that we are all influenced by it. It happens that people look back at what Næss has said and use this as a reflection upon the course of the party.”

GEF: Has the impact of Arne Næss perhaps also had an impact on the image that people in Norway have of your party? Do people see Miljøpartiet as an academic party, for example?

Strømmen: “Yes, I think so, and I believe that this has meant that the party has at times expressed itself in ways that was difficult for many people to relate to, so I would say that the development towards more pragmatism in Miljøpartiet these days is a positive thing.”

Schei: “If you look at the electorate of our party, you also see that higher educated people from larger cities (e.g. Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger) are overrepresented. Currently, we are trying to appeal to a broader electorate than this.”

From Næss to populist rhetoric? The electoral strategies of Miljøpartiet

GEF: What, in that case, would be the main profiling strategy of Miljøpartiet?

Schei: “First of all, we want to stand out as the environmental party of Norway. We take green issues much more seriously than any other party. At the same time, Miljøpartiet also wants to highlight that it is not just a one-issue-party. People in Norway are not fully aware of it yet that we want to do more than just combating climate change, so we have to make sure to profile ourselves in other fields as well.”

Strømmen: “In general, we try to stress our own green narrative as much as possible. Of course, we do not always manage to get much attention with this, particularly due to the small size of our party. Therefore, we have to take a stand in the ongoing debates in the media as well. Social media can be an important tool nowadays to put forward our own narrative though.”

 GEF: But how are you planning to broaden your current electorate, as you mentioned? Do you have certain target groups in mind that do not belong to the “usual suspects” of voting green?

Schei: “I think there is much to gain among voters who are older than, say, 60 years, and who worry about handing over the earth to new generations of people. I think we could visit the homes of the elderly, for example, and tell the people there that we have a solution for their grandchildren. I think I can also use my experience with Høyre campaigns here.”

GEF: Does the fact that you have been attracting so many disappointed members of other parties, make Miljøpartiet a typical protest party, and an anti-establishment party? Would you even consider using populist rhetorical tools to establish the party?

Schei: “I would not say that we are a protest party, but a solution party. In that way we differ from for example the right-wing populist Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), which simply stands for lowering taxes without any theoretical basis. But as for the label anti-establishment party I tend to agree. This is because Miljøpartiet stands for quite dramatic changes in society, unlike the established parties. In order to reach these goals, I think we could certainly make use of populist rhetorical tools. Let us stir things up!”

Strømmen: “I think that Miljøpartiet could indeed make more use of populist rhetorical tools to reach certain people. You have to be aware of it though that Nikki and I are not the most representative voices of Miljøpartiet in this respect. Many people in our party would strongly oppose any populist tendency, in spite of the fact that there is a certain heritage of this in the alternative political movements of the 1960s, in which many Green parties have their roots.”

The impact of July 22

GEF: Have tendencies of populist and anti-establishment rhetoric perhaps become more controversial since Breivik’s terrorist attack of July 22 last year?

Schei: “Spreading hatred and anger towards political opponents has become a taboo I think, but the quality of the debates has generally remained the same. Of course, Miljøpartiet has never stood and will never stand for stimulating hate against other political parties.”

Strømmen: “The attack has certainly led to discussions on the impact of a certain type of rhetoric, also within the political parties. Personally, I think this has improved the ongoing political debates in Norway. On the internet, you can still find horrible comments though.”

GEF: How has Miljøpartiet reacted to the events of July 22? Was there an official reaction from the party?

Schei: “Yes, there was. In general, the party expressed its sympathy with the families of the victims, and said not to fight Breivik’s ideas with the same hatred as he did.”

Strømmen: “Just like all other political parties in Norway, Miljøpartiet decided to postpone the campaigns for the local elections of 2011 for several weeks. Personally, I think that Miljøpartiet should have put its ideological core element of anti-racism more in the foreground.”

GEF: Before the local elections of 2011, politicians called on Norwegian people to go and vote in order to show how important democracy still is in their country, and that they do not accept anti-democratic threats. These calls did not turn out to be successful, as the turnout was not significantly higher than before. Do you have an explanation for this? What did Miljøpartiet do in order to stimulate people to go and vote?

Schei: “I think this is simply because many people in Norway have become politically tired. There are only few political opinions that strongly differ from each other – particularly on the local level. Of course, I think that Miljøpartiet can make a difference here. Consequently, our party had relatively good results in last year’s elections. Miljøpartiet joined the public calls to people to go and vote to show the strength of democracy in Norway, and specified this to young people by using social media. After all, it was mostly young politically active people who were killed by Breivik, so I think that young people can be the more motivated to show that they do not accept such horrible threats.”

GEF: One party that lost significantly in the 2011 elections, was the right-wing populist Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet). It has appeared that Breivik was actively involved in the youth organisation of this party between 1997 and 2007. How radical is this party actually? Have people been blaming Fremskrittspartiet for Breivik’s actions?

Strømmen: “Fremskrittspartiet is certainly a right-wing populist party, but they are not on the radical right. Their rhetoric is much more modest than that of Geert Wilders’ PVV, for example, and while they are certainly very sceptical to today’s immigration policies, and often propose a line which is highly restrictive – and in my opinion quite deplorable -, their official policies are far from the anti-immigrant ones that one finds in a number of political parties across Europe.”

“Actually, I believe it is partly thanks to Fremskrittspartiet that no radical right-wing party has managed to establish itself in Norway. Fremskrittspartiet certainly attracts some radical voters and members, but for the most part it is a relatively moderate right-wing protest party.”

“Of course, one can find similarities between Fremskrittspartiet and more radical groups, but at the same time several of their politicians have distanced themselves clearly from radical right-wing rhetoric and ideas. One example is a local politician – formerly central in the youth organisation of Fremskrittspartiet – who recently condemned anti-Roma hate rhetoric on the internet in no uncertain terms. In fact, their youth wing is led by a young man who himself has a non-European immigrant background. I doubt we will see that happening with for instance the Vlaams Belang Jongeren soon.”

“Therefore, I do not think that this party can or should be blamed for what one insane – whether clinically or just politically – individual inspired by extreme right-wing ideology did. Criticism against Fremskrittspartiet should be based on their policies, and on their rhetoric, not on Breivik’s terrorism. This has also been the consensus in Norway. Apart from some radical left-wingers, very few people have been blaming Fremskrittspartiet for what has happened.”

“Lastly, while Fremskrittspartiet’s bad election results in 2011 could probably be partly ascribed to scepticism against their anti-immigration policies in the wake of Breivik’s attacks, and to a pull towards moderate political forces, I also think that there are a number of other reasons. Fremskrittspartiet has experienced several scandals in recent years which have not necessarily played all that well with their potential electorate.”

Preparing for Norway’s parliamentary elections of 2013

GEF: Do you think that the events of July 2011 will still have an impact on the national elections next year?

Strømmen: “No, not really. It looks like it is going to be a classical election between left and right, and that the economy is going to play an important role. The problem for Miljøpartiet is that it does not identify strongly with either of the blocks.”

Schei: “We are worried that the green agenda will be ignored in the left-right debates, but on the other hand, this also gives Miljøpartiet an opportunity to profile itself.”

GEF: How is Miljøpartiet currently preparing for the elections of 2013? Do you have any strategic plans?

Schei: “Firstly, we are working on the professionalization of the party. Therefore, we are organising a huge education weekend with top members of Miljøpartiet. As a work in progress, we are not only thinking about focussing on specific target groups (like young people and pensioners), but also on specific regions in Norway. Due to the election system in our country, we are trying to get deputies in the parliament from the regions where we seem to have the best electoral chances, and where we have the most solid organisation. Of course, it will still be difficult to overcome the 4% threshold, but I am optimistic.”

GEF: Lastly, do you think that Europe is going to play a role in the campaigns, in spite of Norway not being an EU Member State? When Miljøpartiet is calling to end the oil era, and when you think that it might be due to its oil reserves that Norway has stayed out of the EU so far, as this has made arguments of economic necessity less convincing, does this mean that Miljøpartiet may support Norway’s EU accession?

Strømmen: “Miljøpartiet has no official point of view in this matter, but the party states that there should be a referendum on Norway’s EU accession again in case the topic is put on the agenda. I think that a majority of the members of Miljøpartiet would vote against accession in that case, just like the Norwegian people in general. Personally, I have become quite pro-European though since I lived in Belgium.”

Schei: “It is well-known that many people in Norway, including those in Miljøpartiet, strongly oppose a possible EU accession. Therefore, this issue is not much discussed, and no politician really dares to put it on the agenda, especially not during the ongoing crisis of course. Regarding the economic consequences of ending the oil era, I think you touch upon an important point. Miljøpartiet has to lead a tough discussion in this respect, as it has to put on the agenda that ending the oil era will decrease Norway’s high standard of living. (Ironically:) People simply have to choose to have one instead of two cars, for example.”

GEF: Thank you very much for your time and your input!

Relevant links

The interview was done by Daan Hovens.

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