Utoya survivors fear right-wing surge in Norway
- Article by: MARK LEWIS
- Associated Press
- September 8, 2013 - 1:30 AM
STAVANGER, Norway — Norway's center-left Labor Party rode a wave of sympathy in local elections following the 2011 massacre of 69 people, mostly teenagers, at its youth division's annual summer camp. At the same time, the anti-immigration Progress Party, to which the Islam-hating attacker had once belonged, saw its support crumble by a third, despite unequivocally condemning the attack.
As Norwegians head to the polls Monday for the first parliamentary election since the July 22, 2011, tragedy, the tables appear to have turned.
The Progress Party looks likely to come into power for the first time, as part of a center-right coalition that polls suggest could oust Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's Labor-led government.
It's a development that disturbs many of the 33 shooting survivors who are bidding for national office.
"It scares me that the Progress Party could be in power," said 29-year-old Vegard Groeslie Wennesland, a survivor running on a Labor Party ticket. "Some of their prominent figures still use very strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric. And that sort of rhetoric will create a more hostile environment."
The massacre on Utoya island, and a bombing that killed eight people in Oslo's government district hours earlier, deeply shocked Norway. At his trial, the confessed attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, said he wanted to punish the Labor Party for its liberal immigration policies and to start a "conservative" revolution.
Breivik, 34, was a member of the Progress Party in his youth before he lost faith in it and in democracy, and adopted the radical anti-Muslim views that underpinned his solo terror attacks.
Norway unanimously agreed that the best way to confront his attacks and his extremism was to not let them change anything in Norwegian society, including its politics.
Stoltenberg, the prime minister, was admired for his calm sensitivity in the aftermath and support for his Labor Party saw a short-lived boost.
But last year, a damning report that mauled the police for a litany of institutional failures before and during the attacks dented the prestige of Stoltenberg's government.
"The Labor party has always been the party of governability. But there has been a torpedo thrown into that image. The ineptitude of the police has been pinned on the Labor Party," said Frank Aarebrot, professor of comparative politics at the University of Bergen.
The loss of credibility has colored the perception of subsequent coalition policies, Aarebrot said, suggesting a recent controversial hospital restructuring program was unfairly widely deemed a costly failure.
Meanwhile, the Progress Party, under the leadership of Siv Jensen, has clawed its way back in the polls and is poised to enter government as a junior partner in a coalition led by Conservative leader Erna Solberg, potentially Norway's next prime minister. Progress has softened its image in recent years, dumping some of its more firebrand spokesmen and pitching itself as a mainstream rightwing party.
All parties have refrained from explicit mentions of Breivik's attacks to avoid being seen as using the tragedy for political gain. But it has emerged in coded language during discussions about national security and investment decisions.
Morten Hoeglund, foreign affairs spokesman for a Progress Party that favors tax cuts and increased infrastructure spending, confronted the issue after revealing that his party would seek to invest the country's oil cash in "roads, rail and police helicopters."
"If you look at the tragedy on July 22, the lack of police helicopters was one of the factors for not getting police as quickly to Utoya as we would like," he said. "But we are also talking about hospitals and other kinds of investment."
Polls have hardly moved since the beginning of August, with Labor and the Conservatives both forecast to attract just shy of 30 percent of the vote. A daily survey by pollster Infact for Norway's VG newspaper showed support for Progress stable at around 14 percent. None of the other parties likely to form a post-election coalition is polling at above 7 percent.
Fredric Holen Bjoerdal, a 23-year-old Utoya survivor who is placed high on the Labor Party's election list and is likely to become Norway's youngest lawmaker, said he was running for office not because of the horror he lived through, but despite of it.
"Many of my friends gave up politics afterward," said Bjoerdal, who led a group of panicked teenagers from one hiding place to another as they fled Breivik's killing spree. "But for me, I became even more interested. I have this feeling that I have to continue the struggle for those who are not around to do it now."
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