Norway has a new prime minister, but my vote goes to the king

It’s hard to get excited about elections in a foreign country. You can’t vote. You’re cautious when discussing the candidates because you’re not sure how to pronounce their names. It would take a dramatic change for a new government to affect expats, anyway.

But I learned a lot about the politics of my own homeland while watching the electoral process up close in Norway during the election campaign over the last month. It’s so different from how things works in the U.S.

For one thing, Norway has 7 different political parties giving its 5.1 million people varied representation in parliament.

The Norwegian government is usually made up of three or four parties. You need 85 out of 169 seats in parliament to form a government and a single party never gets that much support. Instead, the parties form coalitions by negotiating a common platform to govern together, with the leader of the largest of the group claiming the post of prime minister.

Jens StoltenbergAfter eight years of seeing the rather handsome Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg lead the nation, Norwegians last week voted him out. Campaigning lasted just six weeks and there were no TV or radio adverts. Campaigners representing the Labor Party handed out red roses, which is their symbol. Other parties handed out balloons and free bottles of water, and loads and loads of flyers.

Covering the campaign as part of the foreign media was a blast. I learned that Norwegian politicians are the least self-centered of their kind. It was obvious from the beginning that a woman named Erna Solberg, who leads Norway’s Conservative Party, would become the next prime minister. When she met with the Foreign Press Association of Oslo, just four days before election day, a reporter asked: How do you want to be remembered as prime minister, after your tenure ends?

Her response was shocking: she told the reporter how she wants her party remembered for how it governed, not her specifically. Her answer wasn’t rehearsed or condescending, it was genuine. While campaigning Solberg represents her party, not herself.

The most refreshing part of Norway’s parliamentary process is that the personal lives of government ministers and parliamentarians are largely left out of campaigning. When Solberg made her victory speech her children, husband and elderly mother weren’t on stage with her. She was on stage on her own, representing her party which had just won voter approval to form a government with its coalition partners. That stage was no place for her family to be milling about. Erna Solberg was at work.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little Norwegian voters, journalists and political rivals care about how many pets a leading candidate has, if she ever inhaled marijuana or whether she likes to hunt. The national media wasn’t even concerned that the Conservative Party’s second deputy is gay or that Solberg is a woman (Norway crossed the rubicon for a first female head of state decades ago).

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

While politicians in Norway are no saints (you can read about perverted Norwegians in politics here and here), they do a clean job of keeping extra-marital activities, sexual preferences, their spouses fashion choices, wack-job families and favorite flavor of ice cream out of the electoral process.

Norwegians leave all of that for its royal family.

King Harald V, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit absorb all of the tabloid gossip, media scrutiny and paparazzi, diverting attention away from the personal lives of heads of state and lawmakers.

Although the royal family don’t have any real power in government, they play one very important role in politics: they unite their people behind a leader.

Election debates tend to have a polarizing effect on society, heating up over everything from taxes to care for the elderly and immigration. And when the polls have closed and all of the ballots have been counted, those who voted for the loser can feel leaderless.

That’s where King Harald comes in.

When a new government is elected in Norway the sitting prime minister submits his resignation to King Harald and makes an official recommendation as to who should be the next head of state.

Norway's royal family

Norway’s royal family

The prime minister, always respectful of the parliamentary process, puts forward the leader of the largest party to form the next government, and the king in turn accepts this recommendation. In this case it’s Erna Solberg, head of Norway’s Conservative Party.

I used to think this kind of thing was stupid. But what I didn’t realize was that a royal family always has the respect of the nation, while no one politician ever does. The people’s respect and trust in King Harald unites those whose favorite party or candidate didn’t win to behind their new leader.

If Erna Solberg is fit to be the king’s prime minister then she must be fit to lead everyone.

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Oslo summer solstice: 19 hours of sunshine

Today the sun will shine for 18 hours, 50 minutes and 1 second.

Now I realize that in December, when the days are short and the imposing darkness begins to wear on me, I’ll regret having said this: the sun is wearing me out. My body needs the kind of peace that only a dark, starry night can provide.

At first I was looking forward to being in Oslo on June 21, the longest day of the year. The best remedy for a grim Norwegian winter is the buildup to the summer solstice. But I went on a whirlwind trip with the Foreign Press Association into the Arctic Circle where, for five days, I didn’t see a cloud in the sky. Just the intense, bright yellow sun. In northern Norway towns like Kirkenes, Honningsvåg and Vardø, the sun doesn’t set for 60 days. Even when the peak of the midnight sun has passed, twilight increases by just 40 minutes each day. There isn’t a proper dark night from April through August.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

The first two days I was charmed by the whole thing. Sunshine all the time! Having to wake up about four hours earlier than I’d like didn’t feel so tough because the brightness and surprisingly warm weather lifted my spirits.

After a few days I started to feel tired. The sun was there when I got up at 6am for a press conference with the prime ministers of Russia and Norway, and at 2pm when we drove to the Norwegian-Russian border for a ceremony. When I clambered into bed at 11pm, I could see the sunshine bursting through the ineffective hotel curtains. My eyes opened for a moment around 3am and the blazing sun made me feel like I had fallen asleep watching television in the middle of the day. Even after eight hours of sleep I still felt like all I’d had was a power-nap.

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By the end of the week I was programmed to fall asleep when the lights were simply turned off. I nearly nodded off during a Power Point presentation by an oil company executive.

Fortunately for them, localers are used to 60 days of sunshine in the summer and 60 days of darkness in the winter. I spoke to a native of Finnmark County in the High North who said besides being a little more tired than usual in the summer, he didn’t find it too challenging. “We aren’t depressed drunks in the winter, nor are we hyperactive in the summer,” he said, debunking ubiquitous myths. “It’s really not a big deal.”

I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to North Cape (Nordkapp in Norwegian), a 1,007-foot-high cliff with a plateau that attracts tourists from around the world to see the midnight sun in the summer and northern lights in the winter.

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North Cape is the second northern-most point of Europe, a mere 2,102.3 kilometers from the North Pole. It has restaurants, a small chapel for weddings, a museum, a theater with a short video about the natural beauty of the High North, and a cheesy souvenir shop.

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It offers panoramic views of the point where the Norwegian Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, meets the Barents Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

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The midnight sun can be seen from 14 May to the 31st of July. The sun reaches its lowest point from 12:14 – 12:24am during those days. Below is a photo taken exactly at midnight.

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Make cheese, not peace

I think I know why Norway gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union: they are desperate for more cows.

Many are perplexed by the motivation behind this year’s award. Scholars and know-it-alls across Europe have tried guessing why politicians from a country that has rejected union membership honored the EU. Speeches at today’s award ceremony outlined historical milestones that brought 27 countries together after two world wars, while naysayers balk at the Peace Prize being given to a union with a huge military.

EU FlagBut maybe everyone is looking too hard, too deep for a reason. This year’s award could be a simple cry for help: Norway needs more butter and cheese.

I was a little hungry when I arrived at Oslo City Hall this morning for the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. As I listened to Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minster who heads the Peace Prize selection committee, my brain turned his eloquently delivered speech about EU’s accomplishments into a manifesto to solve Norway’s dairy shortage.

When Jagland spoke about how the Coal and Steel Community in 1950 planted the seed of promoting peace between nations through economic integration, I thought about how a Cow and Butter-Churning Alliance with Denmark could revolutionize trade in Norway and save us from another butter crisis.

When my stomach growled, I thought about how the lettuce-to-parmesan ratio in caesar salads across Norway will suffer next year because taxes on foreign cheeses will go up by 277%. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jagland was thinking the same thing. Before presenting the Nobel diploma he said: “What this continent has achieved is truly fantastic, from being a continent of war to being a continent of peace.”

And, maybe, of cheese.

Jagland

Perhaps the Norwegian politicians who hold the coveted seats on the Nobel Peace selection committee dream of an abundance dairy products. Maybe last year’s butter crisis and the looming hike in foreign cheese prices has finally got a few politicians rethinking Norway’s draconian protectionist policies. The rules are meant to protect local products and the jobs that they create, but the country’s determination to be self-sufficient has come with a price: poor selection at the grocery store, increasingly high food prices and an occasional famine.

Norway is not part of the EU. In fact, 75% of its electorate is against joining. One of the side effects of an EU membership is that Norway would have to change its trade policies. Maybe Jagland just wanted some cheap cheese and realized that the EU could be the secret to liberating Norway’s trade policies.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the ceremony hungry.

Unscientific election poll: paint Norway blue

Despite the garbage that is thrown about in the runup to Election Day I love the American presidential race. Cable news channels and their obsession with combing over the minutia of the candidates can be exhausting but I miss having a front row seat for the madness.

It turns out that Norwegians are well-informed about the elections. Local media provides daily updates and even covers the power battleground states have, including the importance of my homestate, Ohio. The cover story in popular Norwegian tabloid Dagsavisen (the days news) on Saturday was about how undecided Ohioans will settle the election for the nation.

I made my decision and sent my absentee ballot weeks ago so my vote has been counted – I tracked it online so there’s no chance of it getting “lost.”

The Dagsavisen cover story sparked my curiosity about how Norwegians felt about the US elections. I decided to find out the word on the street and here is what I heard:

Karl-Erik, 57, says its hard not to be aware about the US elections. Although it isn’t a big topic of discussion among Norwegians he says it’s all over the newspapers, radio stations and news channels. He thinks Obama should win because Romney is “just a rich guy coming in trying to be at the top of everything. Being president is the next thing for him, it will look good on his CV.”

Sabina, 19, doesn’t know when Election Day is but she is passionate about Obama because Romney proposes a strict kind of leadership. “I will be worried for the world if Romney wins,” says Sabina. Why? “Because he doesn’t stand for freedom and other Obama-ish things.” English is not her first language and she struggled to find the right words to further describe Romney.

Linn, 26, hasn’t been following the elections closely but knows that tomorrow is the big day. She has faith that Americans will make the right choice, which she thinks is re-electing Obama. “He’s had a tough time these four years but he’s the one who knows how to fix the economy,” she says. “He needs time to continue what he started.” Linn says the presidential election is a subject that comes up often with her friends but they choose not to discuss it with Americans who are voting for Romney. “Its not the right thing to talk about with them.”

Bjørn, 28, says: “Romney is a liar who can’t do what he says he can do.” He says the first thing he’ll do on Wednesday morning is find out who won. He wants Obama to win because he has been successful in creating jobs and a new healthcare plan. Bjørn couldn’t pinpoint what gives him such a negative impression of Romney, but he was sure Obama could fix America’s problems.

Tone, 24, doesn’t know when the elections are and only discussed them enough to say to her boyfriend that the topic is everywhere in the news yet she hasn’t been following. Tone wants Obama to win. “Norwegians love him because he’s pretty cool and sounds great when he speaks.” She didn’t know the name of “that other guy.”

Petter, 55, is skeptical that Americans will make the right choice, which he thinks is to re-elect Obama. His reasons for choosing the President is plain and simple: Romney is too old. As for the election process, Petter thinks its ridiculous that Americans “keep getting back to issues that [Norwegians] stopped talking about 20 years ago, like homosexuality, evolution, abortion.” He says these things don’t matter when it comes to choosing a president, and that where the law stands on those issues should have been resolved already.

I sensed some apathy about the elections among the small selection of locals I spoke to. As an American I like to think that my country is so big and so wonderful that everyone should care, but perhaps Norwegians don’t need to be as vigorous with their interest because they are isolated from some of the ways the US affects the world.

Happy Election Day everyone! Don’t let a nasty poll worker keep you from casting a ballot.

The EU wins the Nobel Peace Prize and I bought a Gandhi party mask to celebrate

Norway has a few things in common with Ohio. For one thing, there are Buckeye trees here. Buckeyes on the footpath, already strewn with autumn leaves, felt like a welcome gesture meant just for me when I arrived in Oslo last fall.

The other thing is that both the Buckeye State and Norway are occasionally thrown into the media spotlight and then completely forgotten. During every US election cycle Ohio’s status as a battleground state gives its residents national importance. Political pundits, campaign staffers and election junkies become obsessed with how Ohioans will vote and what it means. And then, on the first Wednesday of November, Ohio is forgotten.

Every October, Norway makes headlines by announcing the Nobel Peace Prize winner. This year the European Union is the recipient of the $1.2 million award. Once again there is controversy, this time it’s that seemingly 500 million citizens of the EU are now Nobel laureates, including some unemployed and unhappy Greeks.

The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.

Norway’s sacred Peace Prize cannot come up in conversation without someone remarking on the absurdity of awarding it to Barack Obama in 2009. Everyone outside the selection committee, from Norwegians to Obama himself, was perplexed. Then there was the Chinese dissident who got the prize in 2010, damaging Norway’s political ties with the whole of China.

Controversy has surrounded the prize for decades. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated five times and never won. The Nobel Foundation has said he was passed over because the selection committee felt he flip-flopped between being a freedom fighter and an ordinary politician.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 and since the Nobel Peace Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, the committee has lived with the regret ever since.

It seems they are trying to make up for their mistake by honoring him in an exhibit called Eye on Gandhi featuring photos from his last days. I went to the Nobel Peace Center today and found the homage a disappointment.

For one thing the gift shop took an icon who showed the world how much one can accomplish through nonviolent civil disobedience and turned him into a boorish stuffed toy.

What does one do with a Gandhi doll? Have a cuddle? Set a doilie in front of it and serve it imaginary tea?

The very first piece in the exhibit, a larger-than-life photo of the smiling Mahatma, glosses over the Nobel Committee’s previous remarks on why Gandhi never won the prize. The exhibit states that if had he not been suddenly killed, he would probably would have gotten it.

Lame excuse.

Lead the entire nation of India to liberation from the Brits and Norway will make a party mask out of your face. And then sell it to foolish tourists for a whopping $17 each.

Offbeat tourism: A guided tour of the slammer

Today I saw a side of Norway that isn’t advertised in guidebooks or tourist websites. In fact it isn’t something that an ordinary tourist or even a local citizen could easily do. I visited the prison where Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik will spend the rest of his life.

The excursion, organized for reporters by the Foreign Press Association in Norway, started off rather serene: A 15 minute drive west out of Oslo, up tree-lined roads along the Oslofjord, past a beautiful golf course filled with patrons available for play on a sunny Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t a surprise when a fellow reporter told me that this suburb, Bærum, is one of the country’s priciest areas to live.

Ila Prison, where Breivik will serve his sentence, is in Bærum.

The English department at my old college in Ohio has some some striking similarities to the photo below.

Our van stopped in front what could easily have been mistaken for the English department at my old college: A long rectangular red brick building perched on a grassy hill. It was one of several buildings that made up the “prison campus.” If it wasn’t surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire I would have thought it was time for English 101.

Breivik isn’t at Ila Prison now. There are few months of construction left of a new wing with special security measures just for him.

A time-out for criminals

The Norwegians’ relief when Breivik was given 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Norway, confused Americans because the US Justice System would have had a far heftier punishment for a man responsible for the cold-blooded murder of 77 people (rest-assured Breivik will be in prison for life because sentences can be extended.)

Ila Prison, where Breivik will probably learn to build make birdhouses.

But in Norway criminals are not sent to prison to be punished. Prison has been designed as a ‘mini society’ for criminals where they can essentially take a break from the real world and, with the help of professionals, recover from whatever aspect of life has driven them to crime. If they can accomplish this they’re released back into society.

There are individual and group counselling sessions to help them learn to think differently. They can also go to school, learn to make wooden birdhouses and hit the gym, all inside the prison campus. If they are released there is a housing consultant to help them find a place.

Take the word “prison” out of that last paragraph and it sounds like something out of a college brochure. This is what Breivik’s sentence will be like.

Investing in values

One of my son’s nursery teachers has a sister who was badly hurt when Breivik attacked. Marcella said her sister, whose post-traumatic stress drove her to be suicidal until the trial ended, is finally able to start recovering now that Breivik has received the maximum prison sentence. She knows imprisonment in Norway is not meant to be a punishment and she’s ok with that.

In Norway the execution of a sentence is not meant to fit society but is designed for the criminal.

Marcella says people lost enough on 22 July, 2011, they don’t want Breivik to take their values, too.

But at what cost are Norwegians digging their heels into their values?

Criminals in preventative detention cost 1.2 million kroner ($210,000) a year. Breivik will cost an additional 6.7 million kroner ($1.2 million) because of special security meaures, including three prison guards dedicated to him while he is in isolation. He’ll also have his own set of shrinks.

Let’s do some math:

1.2 million kroner + 6.7 million kroner x 21 years = 165 million kroner.

Nearly $29 million by the time he’s 54 years old. And he’s in for life.

A second glance

Since leaving the US I’ve had a lot of practice adjusting how I look at things. Like how Norwegians have lunch at 11:30am. Locals subscribe to a healthier four-meal-a-day routine and I’ve found it works.

But understanding why Breivik isn’t just electrocuted takes some recalibrating. First I had to wrap my head around the idea that in Norway the execution of a sentence is not meant to fit society but is designed for the criminal.

Look at it from this angle and the correctional system makes a bit more sense.

In the US a majority of sex offenders sent to prison are eventually released. If one of these chaps could end up my next door neighbor, I don’t want him to have had a miserable time in prison. It’ll only make him hate the world more. A positive, constructive prison environment means that when someone is released they know how to function in the real world like a normal person.

And then there’s the latest example of the US Justice System at work: Damon Thibodeaux, a Louisiana death row inmate, who spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for 15 years for a crime that he didn’t commit.

Thibodeaux is the 18th death row inmate exonerated based on DNA evidence. He is an example of the complete failure of the US Justice System. A dangerous man remained free, an innocent man suffered hell on Earth, and now he’s been released and is supposed to move on.

He is innocent yet I do not want him living near me.