The results from today’s Norwegian elections are more or less clear: with some 26.8% of the vote, the Conservative party (Høyre) is poised to head Norway’s next coalition government. The first thing to note about Norway’s unsettling rightward turn is the fact that the Progress party (Fremskrittspartiet) is set to join as junior partner in a coalition government. Disturbingy, a political party whose platform is marked above all else by an ardent anti-immigration agenda is capable of making such headway little more than two years after neofascist Anders Breivik carried out his heinous terrorist attacks.
The events that left 77 people dead, prompted public debate to focus on a deeply troubling question: what was it about Norwegian society that had made 22/7 possible? Breivik’s extensive links to far-right groups and anti-Muslim networks prompted the recognition that his actions and ideology could not be understood in a vacuum. Rather, it seemed clear that he had emerged from the fertile ground of a racism and an Islamophobia that had attained a degree of respectability in public debate in Norway. This, it was argued, demanded a collective response: Norwegian society had to confront deep-seated xenophobic attitudes and embrace the fact that cultural and ethnic diversity had come to stay.
For a time, this was a recognition that seemed to hold sway. The most significant indication of this shift was the fact that electoral support for the Progress party – a party of which Breivik had been a member for a number of years, and whose warnings against the “sneak-Islamisation” of Norwegian society resonated with the main tenor of Breivik’s ideology – was significantly reduced in the local elections of September 2011.
However, the fact that the party now seems destined to become the second largest player in Norway’s new ruling coalition raises the question of why 22/7 failed to become more of a watershed in Norwegian politics. A very likely reason is the fact that Norway has failed to take the lessons of the attacks that befell us that dreadful day to heart. Breivik’s actions and ideology were quickly pathologised and turned into an aberration – indeed, the court proceedings against him were remarkable for their studious avoidance of questions relating to the broader context in which Breivik had flourished. An aberration, of course, is not something that weighs down on a nation’s collective conscience. Norwegian society could move along, safely ensconced in its affluent comfort zone. And this should be a matter of great concern for those of us who were hoping for a more tolerant society to emerge from the trauma of 22/7.
But it’s not only the advance of the far-right Progress party that gives cause for concern. It is equally disconcerting that victory has been claimed by a conservative political party that advocates tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and a substantial reduction of public spending on welfare. This agenda is of course familiar in these austerity-ridden times, but the paradox is this: there is no crisis to warrant such policies. Under its current “red-green” government, Norway has in fact steered clear of the economic and social debacle that has mired the EU project since 2008. Growth rates have been stable over the past five years and unemployment is lower in Norway than in any of the countries in the European Union.
This is not to say that there are not challenges ahead for Norway’s economy. For example, there is still inequality and poverty amid plenty, and immigrants and minority communities suffer its consequences disproportionally. However, there is no conceivable way in which the neoliberal agenda touted by the Conservatives can address such challenges.
On the contrary – the eager pursuit of such an agenda in the current context shows what the objective for the Conservatives really is, namely, a project geared towards redistributing wealth in favour of society’s elites. In doing so, this project will undermine what has been an enduring and valuable feature of Norwegian society – and a key reason why the country topped the UNDP’s human development index in 2013 – which is a social infrastructure that ensures the availability of crucial public goods and underpins the country’s relative egalitarian social structure.
In other words, the 2013 elections have thrown up a marriage of neoliberal conservatism and rightwing populism that threatens to entrench that which we need to rid ourselves of and erode that which we should struggle to keep.