Prableen Kaur has arrived at Grorud Naersenter, a drab shopping mall on the outskirts of Oslo, armed with hundreds of red roses and an unshakable faith in Norway’s democracy. The roses are an easy sell. “It’s an icebreaker — people usually don’t say no,” the 20-year-old Labor Party candidate says as she thrusts flowers and campaign leaflets into shoppers’ hands.
Harder to understand is her tolerance toward those sharing the views of Anders Behring Breivik, the white supremacist who left her cowering under the bodies of her friends as he calmly shot dead 69 people at a Labor Party youth camp on Utoya Island two years ago. He claimed to be on a crusade against multiculturalism and immigration, intent on wiping out the future generation of a party he blamed for the “Islamic invasion” of Norway.
“People can share their thoughts and their opinions — it is their democratic right,” says Kaur, who survived the July 22 massacre by leaping into the cold fjord. “I think democracy works better if every different opinion can be a part of the debate.”
The problem for Kaur is that the democratic system she cherishes is forecast to oust the Labor Party after eight years in power. Elections next month could even see an anti-immigration party that once counted Breivik as a member join a coalition government for the first time.
Outside the political process, far-right extremists whose voices fell silent after the attacks are back on blogs peddling their hate. Kaur points to a proliferation of anti-immigrant views on the comments sections of newspaper websites. Ronny Alte, the former head of the extreme-right Norwegian Defence League who quit after Breivik’s massacre, now runs a new website that includes rants against Islamic culture. Antiracism campaigners say society failed to mount any real challenge to their views after Utoya, preferring to blame a lone fanatic rather than examining some of the more mainstream prejudices that shaped his worldview. The extremists, says Shoaib Mohammad Sultan, an adviser to the Norwegian Centre Against Racism, “have sort of got away with it.”
In theory, Norway should be immune to some of the more inflammatory rhetoric aimed at migrants elsewhere in Europe, where high unemployment leaves locals looking for easy scapegoats. The vast oil reserves discovered in the 1960s have transformed Norway into one of the richest nations in the world, with generous state benefits and enough jobs to go around.
But there remain pronounced existential fears that far-right parties across the sparsely populated north of Europe exploit: a perception that traditional Scandinavian values of liberalism and Christianity are under threat, in particular by radical Islam, despite just a tiny minority of people airing such views. Norway is not alone. An anti-immigration party frequently polls as the third most popular in Sweden. The Danish Prime Minister this week felt compelled to stress that pork meatballs should be served at day-care centers, after a noisy tabloid debate about Islamic customs being adopted by state institutions.
That Norway failed to turn a corner after Breivik’s massacre is disappointment to many of his intended victims. In the months that followed the attack, it looked like the impact on the political debate could be profound. Although the anti-immigration Progress Party immediately condemned the actions of Breivik, who left their ranks in 2006, it lost a third of its support at municipal elections in 2011. The Labor Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was praised for his dignity and sensitivity, and the party fared better than expected at the local polls.
But the wave of sympathy was tarnished a year later when a report revealed a catalog of security failings leading up to Breivik’s rampage. The Progress Party, meanwhile, has tweaked some of its rhetoric and now bills itself as a mainstream movement in the mold of U.S. Republicans or the British Conservative Party. “Our heroes,” Progress Party candidate Kristian Norheim says as he walks past photos of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan adorning the corridors of their offices.
Norheim is at pains to portray the Progress Party as a “folkish” movement guided by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of the power of the individual over the state. Questions about previous pledges to cap immigration and their views on Muslims are met with tracts on protecting freedom of speech and women’s rights. Breivik is referred to as “that bastard.”
But comments by Progress Party leader Siv Jensen last year that Norway should “arrange a bus” and deport people from the Roma minority raised concerns that their values remained the same.
“I had hoped that the debate had changed and that it would be a more tolerant debate, at least from the politicians,” says Asmund Aukrust, 28, one of 33 Labor Party members running for Parliament next month who survived the Utoya massacre.
How many people share such views will become clearer after the elections. Current opinion polls suggest a Conservative-led coalition that would likely include the Progress Party, with voters looking for a change after two terms of Labor. But whichever party emerges victorious, Labor candidates are adamant that there is one person who will never win. That is Breivik, who is currently serving a 21-year sentence for the island shooting and a bomb in Oslo that killed eight.
“His goal was to crush the Labor Party,” says Stine Renate Haheim, another Utoya survivor running for office. “He didn’t succeed. The AUF [Labor Party youth wing] is stronger than ever.”