European elections have recently caught the interest of Americans on the Left. Greece, obviously, and the election victory of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK. Now there’s one more, admittedly on a much more modest scale, to chalk up for the Left: Norway. On Monday, Rødt—Red in English—a party of communists and socialists (although not a classic communist party), had their best showing in years in the nationwide voting for provincial and local leaders there, while the ruling Conservative coalition took some big hits.
The Norwegian elections have not been widely covered in the mainstream media here, nor even in the English language blogosphere, so I spent Tuesday tracking down friends and friends of friends in Norway and grilling them to cobble together, from 5000 miles away, this rough, immediately-after-the-fact report.
We’ll lead with a party—no, not that kind—a victory bash in a city of 75,000 well north of the Arctic circle. Elin Jorgensen says:
We had an amazing celebration at a pub in the center of Tromsø. The place was crowded with people supporting us and the Red party. And there were a lot of journalists and cameras all evening—from newspapers and TV channels. Both Jens Ingvald and I were talking about our politics and we also had some artists that entertained us. We really had an evening to remember.
The attention was because the slate Elin ran on drew 14.4% of the vote, making Rødt the third largest party in Tromsø (out of eight) and doubling their representation on the city council to six of 43 overall. Now negotiations are underway in Tromsø among Rødt, the Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet), holding 13 seats and the Left Socialists (Sosialistisk Venstreparti), holding 4, over how to unite to advance a common agenda on the council—a formal common front or some other form of alliance. Jens Ingvald Olsen, who headed up the Rødt slate, may even wind up being the mayor!
The Big Picture
Eric Ness headed the Rødt list of candidates in Larvik, which drew 1.4%, short of the 2.5% needed for a seat. He edits the party’s theoretical publication, also called Rødt, and says, “Red magazine is the winner. It continues to get all my attention.”
Asked about the Norwegian elections overall, the big picture and not just the Rodt campaign, he says the big losers were the conservative alliance which has been governing the country:
The large Conservative party (Høyre) dropped 4.7 %. Their closest allies, the smaller, even more conservative and rather racist Progress party (Fremskrittspartiet) went down 1.7%. Even with two smaller parties aligned with them, this alliance lost the capital, Oslo, and the second biggest city, Bergen, plus Tromsø, the largest city in the north. Red got 14 % in Tromsø, which is incredible. The Labor party gets the mayors in the four biggest cities. This was a significant defeat for the two parties who hold the majority in Parliament.
I asked Erik what practical effect these defeats for the Conservative bloc might have on in localities across Norway. Sure, their program was rejected by many voters, but they will still be running the government and implementing their policies until the next parliamentary election, two years away. He replied that it’s not that simple, and gave as an example one of their biggest crimes, changes in longstanding labor law on workers’ rights and working conditions:
The election raises the likelihood that this law will be modified or reversed locally. The most important change in the law is that the employers can hire people on a preliminary basis for up to one year without many basic rights. But in Norway the public sector is big, and the local councils have the power to decide that they will follow the old, more strict law in dealing with municipal employees. Many councils have already done that, and there is now a possibility that Bergen, Oslo and Tromsø will do the same. But you never know, the Green party is often the joker, and they are not very concerned with workers’ conditions. Our hope is that the national election in two years will change the whole law.
Labor regained some lost ground nationally, but perhaps the biggest winner was the Greens who came on strong, so Erik’s last point is very important. By comparison, on a national scale, Rødt’s percentage of the total national vote increased by about a quarter, to more than 2%. They now have 100 elected officials at the city and county level.
More Red Accomplishments
This is still pretty impressive for a party whose national membership numbers around 2,500 (though admittedly in a country of five million). That number makes the fact that 1163 candidates ran on Rødt slates, in all the cities and a lot of rural areas. all the more impressive, Some were members but many more were supporters, including members of the Rød Ungdom (Red Youth). (An amusing note on those rural areas: in one, the district of Hof in Westfold—pop. 3000—the candidates of Rødt and the Greens decided to run on a joint slate, not a usual practice in Norway. The national leadership of the Greens, Erik reports, was extremely unhappy about it. The voters weren’t—they put one from each party in office!)
Other municipalities, especially in the North, did very well: Vefsn 11.7, Bodø 10.4, Vågan 10, and Sortland 9.5 %. Oslo topped 5% and will have three Rødt members of the city council, an increase of one.
Still more impressive was the fact that, as Oslo-based journalist Sissel Henrikson told me, these gains were made even as Rødt was not permitted to take part in the nationally televised debate for the first time. This sparked broad protest, especially in various online forums.
Sissel also notes one result of Rødt’s Tromsø success, more redbaiting!
There has been some media coverage about the good results in the North. But now they are criticizing Jens, the guy at the top of our list there, very hard because he said in an interview that Mao Zedong was a great leader of the freedom struggle, even if he did make some big mistakes…
As the late Chairman himself pointed out, “To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.” It means that something is being accomplished.
So what about the places that weren’t as triumphant? Let’s take the second largest city, Bergen. I checked in with Henrik Madsen who tells me that Rødt’s two representatives on the city council, Torstein Dahle and Sofie Marhaug were re-elected despite the fact that the party’s overall vote went down slightly. This was more than offset by a particularity of Norway’s multi-party system. One can vote for a party slate and/or for individuals, Because they are seen as trustworthy and committed to the people, the two came in first and third respectively among all voters who expressed a personal preference. (Jens Ingvald Olsen set a local record for personal choice ballots in Tromsø for the same reason.)
Looking at the months to come, Henrik says:
A lot of kids from low income families got thrown out of kindergarten by the Bergen City Council, because their families had trouble paying for it. All parties voted for this, except Rødt. Now Rødt (and a couple of the parties that originally voted for it, including Labor and Socialist Left) are trying to reverse the decision.
Meanwhile, there is work to be done outside of the city council, and other struggles to be taken up. For instance, Rødt and Bergen Red Youth are very active in a campaign to defend a teenage girl named Yasmin from deportation. As a refugee in Hungary, she was forced into sex slavery and fled to Norway for asylum. The Norwegian government is trying to deport her back to Hungary, even though state hostility to refugees and racism there have made the front pages worldwide in recent weeks.
Most of those I connected with were optimistic about Rødt’s chances of regaining a place in the national parliament in the 2017 elections, after losing its one, Oslo-based, seat last time around, in the 2011 election. Henrik, one of the youngest people I chatted with, also seems the most positive:
We will at least get one or two candidates from Troms and Nordland counties and one from Oslo, if things continue this way. And we will try our best at getting at least one from Rødt Hordaland in Parliament.
This prediction might seem unduly optimistic, but let me offer one more snapshot. A couple of people steered me to a city of 10,000 in Telemark in the south of Norway. Rødt in Kragerø actually outdid Tromsø, pulling over 16% of the vote, after a poll in May had them at 9%! That sixteen was enough to make it the second largest party in the city and double its seats from three to six.
Tobias Drevland Lund, one of those newly elected council members (at age 19), has some ideas about how it happened:
After 8 years of the conservative coalition, the people were sick of their broken promises, cuts in public welfare, closing of local schools and the hospital. It all adds up. The Red Party council members have in the previous council been working constantly addressing these issues, and opposing the conservative parties. Our members in the council are hard-working “ordinary” people, with a good reputation. They care about ordinary people and are not career politicians. I think this at least is a part of the explanation, even though we didn’t really see it coming!
Now, as in Tromsø, the effort is on to forge a formal alliance with Labor, Socialist Left Party and Greens, which would have 21 seats out of 35. Then comes the hard work, says Tobias:
We will drag Labor to the left. I reckon the growing concern considering the economy and the huge debt the council got, needs to be discussed. How to deal with the growing unemployment, how to increase the welfare and keep our public services are also important issues.
But maybe most of all, the question about joining other councils—creating broader areas, more bureaucracy and moving power from the local communities to the cities like Porsgrunn and Skien. This is something we are fighting against. “Kommunesammenslåing” they call it.
A final cheering note. Folks in several cities reported that with the campaign and now the electoral successes, there has been a distinct rise in folks, especially young folks, joining Rødt, which will, if it continues, make a real difference two years from now. Elin Jorgensen says:
Download this piece as a PDF
Oh yes, the last three weeks we’ve got about thirty new members in Tromsø and there were a lot of new people at the celebration yesterday. I love it!