Elections in Norway: a comeback for the social democracy or defeat of the social movements?


by Lars Akerhaug

12th of September we saw elections in Norway. The results, a big loss for the ruling rightwing coalition, a great upsurge for the social democratic Party, and a relatively bad result for the left of this party may seem contradictory at first.

First of all it is interesting to note that a tendency observed in large parts of Western Europe, namely the collapse of the social democracy as a popular force seems to be contradicted with events in Norway. Not only has the Norwegian elections in results produced a giant comeback for the main social democratic Party, but it has also produced what aspires to be an independent movement in support of this comeback. This means that at a quick glance it would look like social democracy is boosting strength and enthusiasm in Norway in a situation elsewhere where this ideological outreach is collapsing in magnitude. We shall try to explain why it is so, or rather, appears to be so, in this short article.

In its political cycle Norway has in many respects been different from many European states. This has several reasons, and here we will only point to the rather obvious. First of all it´s a question of economy. While the majority of European states have a negative surplus, the Norwegian economy produces a giant state surplus, through the income from oil. However the oil economy has the further impact that the economic ups and downs differs from most Europe in that high oil prices has a vastly negative effect on continental economy, for the Norwegian state budget this is positive. This analysis could lead us to a rather efficient and often applied point, that social democracy in Norway is vibrant because such a policy is still affordable. While it is certainly true that the Norwegian welfare system still contains a number of services of very high quality, and that in general Norway is ranked as one of the best countries in, among other places, UNDP rankings, this still produces a much too simplified picture.

Norwegian economy is not a rentier state like in the Arab Golf where one-man rulers buy loyalty through gifts to their citizens, producing a "nation" of upper-class served by immigrant labor. I do not want to discuss the eventual existence of a labor aristocracy here but rather note that Norwegian economy is an economy which is still in most respects comparable to other small European states, with a (if somewhat limited) multitude of incomes, class and political divisions. It is still possible to claim that economical developments typically observed in continental Europe and the UK are somewhat belated in Norway compare to other states, and to a certain degree generally different. If we are to mention one question it is the EU, where membership was a late topic, and with a different outcome, Norway is still not a member of the Union.

However, it is easily countered to these arguments that among other differences the harsh resistance to the EU in Norway (and to a certain degree, Scandinavia) has other roots. In many popular and academic discourses the resistance to the European Union has been portrayed as first of all dependent of cultural factors, and these before economical. Briefly summarized the resistance against the European Union has been centered around a positive stance on national sovereignty, values of equality and a certain sense of "dis-belonging" to Europe. This cultural resistance has mainly not been centered around the right, but the "center" and political left.

This further implies the existence of a "center" in Norwegian politics different from the state-administrative "center" parties elsewhere in that these movements are historical remnants of opposition from petite bourgeois, poor peasants and, in the 1800s the workers´ movement, against the developments of capitalism. Of many interesting features, one of the more special for Norway (and to a certain degree comparable to early U.S. history) is that the fundamentalist, Christian movement sided with these early social movements. On their agenda was a mix of agrarian-social demands (with a variety of left and right elements) and cultural questions like morality, alcohol and other such issues. It is also a popular stance that part of this tradition was in fact adopted and integrated into the labor movement taking form in Norway in the early 1900s.

It is also beyond clear that this kind of ideological self-definition still exists in large parts of the center-left, even if somewhat weakened by "urban-radicalism" and re-defined by the globalization discourse. With regard to the latter, "new radicalism" has to a certain degree attempted to portray the national left as "xenophobic" and "brown".

However, with the elections seen in Norway this year, these tendencies seem to faint. Inside the center, very little opposition is left, seen in the way that the traditional "center-bloc" of Norwegian politics has in fact split in two, one part with the traditional conservative party and another with the social democrats. It means that for the first time since many years we have witnessed an election campaign with two more or less monolithic blocs (admittedly somewhat confused with the "wild-card" tactics of the right-wing populist party). In fact, nationally, voters are given no third alternative between the two main parties, and their support parties, or rather the only alternative was either rightwing populist party or the rather small revolutionary socialist platform, Red Electoral Alliance.

Defeat of the social movements, towards two-party system

In this situation there has been a development that might have been unexpected, in a rather strong attempts from parts of the left layers of the social democracy, to form a movement for regime change, to include layers of leftwing social democracy, leftist and revolutionary organistaions. Oslo 2005 – for ny kurs was the organized manifestation of this, an alliance of ATTAC, trade unions, some international NGOs and also the leftist daily Klassekampen ("Class Struggle") and aligned revolutionary tendencies in different shapes. However, if the goal of this movement was to create a left bloc in the elections this can hardly be seen as a success. First of all it became clear rather soon that there was no mass basis for this mobilization, and the co-efforts resulted only in about 2000-3000 participants (numbers are, admittedly, disputed) in the big rally. This number is only slightly above average larger leftist manifestations. Secondly, it is clear that the left-wing of the social democracy has been weakened in these elections. Sosialistisk Venstreparti which is the left part of Norwegian reformism and comparable to the German Greens or Danish Sosialistisk Folkeparti already took many steps to the right before the elections, sacrificing their anti-NATO and anti-US foreign policy, and generally keeping a low and un-distinct profile. This happened without serious uproar from party cadres, who are generally to the left of the leadership. The left social democracy has in itself been weakened, especially after what has been seen as a slightly more radical period of the above-mentioned party. For four years the SV will be doomed to a support party for a three times as big coalition partner. Why did SV lose so much votes, and even more credibility?

Historical parallels are often a slippery slope. However, in the case of SV, a comparison to American politics may be possible. Often summarized by leftist and revolutionary groups, the defeat of Kerry in the last American presidential elections was not so much because of the love of George Bush (who is resented by large parts of the population) but rather the inability of the Democratic Party to bolster any real opposition. The latter is true also of SV. It is not that the rightwing turn of SV during these elections in itself damaged the electoral results, but that the rightwing turn turned SV incapable of bolstering and feeding on the very real opposition. With this political turn, the party lost even more of its identity and proved itself unable to launch a vigorous attack on the preceding conditions.

Further, also with reference to the American political system, it is true that there are strong elements of Americanization of Norwegian politics. This is seen above in the example of the collapse of SV as a real alternative, but also in the bolstering of the populist right, who has had as its main slogan the push for "majority government". In this situation, it is not unlikely that the rightwing populists have played a deliberate gamble that their wild-card tactics toward the government in this election would provide them with the force they now posses as the biggest opposition group in parliament.

The defeat of the old left: victory of the new antagonist movement?

The elections in Norway are both depressing and promising. Depressing, in that there is no real left movement or mass movement against the reactionary government. This implies that the movement must be rebuild. The old left now runs a big risk in being vaporized into the ruling coalition. The situation now existing in Norwegian politics is extraordinary. Not since 1961 has there existed no left opposition to the ruling government. This mean that all social and antagonist discourse must now find non-parliamentary expressions. At the same time it implies a big and very probable danger of incorporation of the social movements into the fold of the government. In the same way as trade unions and other instruments of the "labor movement" are, by and large, subdued by the ruling class; so the "new movements" risk developing into.

As seen above the elections in Norway proved the inefficiency of the traditional left. Although there is enough dissent, there was no popular pole on the left to reflect this. The SV turned to the right and the RV was to small to become noticed. This does not mean that Norwegian public opinion is reactionary. Rather, in two major issues, opinion is currently rather progressive. This is in regard to the EU, where a majority after the French and Dutch victory is voting NO, and in regard to antiwar politics, were a majority is against Norwegian war participation in Iraq (similar polls lack on Afghanistan).

The growth of rightwing populism (and Christian fascism) indicated first of all the cultural dis-identification with the regime. Liberalism is not in itself an answer to this. It is here imperative to understand that the upsurge of Christianity and the moral right is a concrete and materialist reaction to the disintegration of Western society, leaving individuals without security in societies without cultural norms or collective security. The right now attempts to draw this into support of the western pole in the "clash of the civilizations". The role of the revolutionary left must be to advocate the opposite, the identification with the opposition of the neo-liberalist capitalist system.

However, it is also obvious that the RV as a political party has not in itself the resources to overcome this. The following years will create a dynamical situation in which a split from the social democracy like Oscar Lafontaine´s German project or Respect in England is very probable. This means that for the following four years the only way to a general upsurge of the left is to throw away the values and cultural identification with the Norwegian social democracy and the hypocritical belief of the social movements in Norway as a "social paradise" which can be changed to the better only with regime change. A real electoral front against the bourgeois reaction need to be created, to include not only revolutionaries, but all facing and opposing the rightwing policies of both factions of the elite. This must include a redefinition of the national question. A complete break with both the "urban leftism" as well as social democracy is necessary. The roots of Norwegian antagonism lies in proposing a viable, Norwegian sovereignty, a complete break with imperialist institutions as EU and NATO and a policy of unification with immigrants and urban poor so successfully pursuided by RESPECT in Britain.

- Defend Norwegian national sovereignty, NO to EU and NATO!
- Fight against neo-liberalism and "New Labour"
- Break with the old left: build a revolutionary antagonist pole!